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City Council passes ordinance to create legal defense fund for immigrants and refugees

The measure would allocate $1 million to defend local immigrants

ICE’s Northwest Detention Center
Seattle Globalist/Flickr

In an unanimous vote, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution to dedicate $1 million to helping locally-based immigrants and refugees get legal representation. City Councilors Lorena González and Tim Burgess first announced the legislation late last month.

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.

The fund will function as a grant, and community organizations will be able to apply for the money to secure immigration attorneys and other legal assistance for people facing immigration court or going through a complex naturalization process.

In chambers today, Councilor González thanked the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs for making sure the ordinance had “enough flexibility in the underlying legislation to make sure [the legislation] truly meets the needs of the community.”

“To me,” said González, “this is a beautiful opportunity for this council and this city to really stand by its values.”

Councilor Burgess said it will “strengthen our communities” and “uphold the rule of law and protect immigrant rights.”

“It’s good for people appearing in our immigration courts, it’s good for our economy, it’s good for public safety—it’s good for all of us as Seattleites,” Burgess continued.

Multiple studies, including one earlier this year at University of California-San Diego, found that cities are safer when immigrants feel safer reporting small crimes and other public health issues.

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, OneAmerica, Casa Latina, labor groups, and others testified in favor of the bill.

Casa Latina Executive Director Marcos Martinez told Council that the measure is especially important under the current federal administration.

He pointed to the high-profile local case of Daniel Ramirez Medina, who was brought into Immigrations and Customs Enforcement custody in February despite having a protected status through the DREAM program, which covers undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Medina was held in custody for more than a month before being released in late March.

Roxana Norouzi of OneAmerica told a different story: She said the organization got a call at 7 p.m. on a Friday night in February from someone whose father was about to be deported. Because of limited resources, she said, they weren’t able to secure representation, and he ultimately ended up being separated from his family.

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. Only 14 percent of immigrants in detention secured representation.

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 (ICE) Northwest Detention Center, 92 percent go without representation.

Many detainees at the facility participated in a recent hunger strike to protest poor conditions.

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. But that ordinance doesn’t prevent ICE arrests, detainments, or deportations.

The one-time allocation of $1 million would come from the 2017 general sub-fund. González said she hopes the money can start going to community groups in June.