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Seattle ordinance would create legal defense fund for immigrants and refugees

The city-backed fund would help provide legal representation

ICE’s Northwest Detention Center
Seattle Globalist/Flickr

A new Seattle city ordinance would dedicate $1 million to helping locally-based immigrants and refugees get legal representation. Councilmembers Lorena González and Tim Burgess, along with Mayor Ed Murray, announced the legislation Thursday morning as a means to counter increased federal enforcement.

The ordinance comes one day after Mayor Murray and City Attorney Pete Holmes announced a lawsuit against the President Donald Trump’s administration over threats to pull funding to “sanctuary cities.”

In immigration court, people don’t have the same right to an attorney that they would otherwise—and without access to public defenders, proceedings often go on without representation.

“Each of our friends, neighbors, and family members who go to immigration court deserve to be accompanied by someone who understands their case,” said González in a statement.

If the proposed legislation passes, the city would take a one-time allocation of $1 million from the 2017 general sub-fund. The fund would function like a grant; community-based organizations would be able to apply for money from the fund to hire legal professionals.

A 2016 American Immigration Council study found that people who were represented in court were far more likely to obtain relief. Those in detention with representation were four times more likely to be released than those without.

Nationally, the study found, only 37 percent of all immigrants obtained legal representation. For immigrants in detention, that number drops to 14 percent.

35 percent of detainees in Seattle immigration court don’t have representation by an attorney. In Tacoma’s immigration court, which handles cases of detainees at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Northwest Detention Center, 92 percent go without representation.

City data estimates that 20 percent of Seattle residents are foreign-born, and that around 150,000 Seattle residents are undocumented.

Seattle passed an ordinance in 2003 that bars law enforcement officials from inquiring about residents’ immigration status, which places us under the “sanctuary city” umbrella in most cases.

The legislation will be introduced at the Gender Equity, Safe Communities, and New Americans Committee meeting on April 12. González and Burgess are chair and vice-chair of that committee, so it’s more than likely it will head to full council for consideration soon after.