Posted on November 3, 2020

One Big Thing Cities Can Do on Immigration

Kica Matos and Helen Gym, Bloomberg, October 26, 2020

As we near a historic election threatened by efforts to disenfranchise voters, the U.S. continues to wrestle with the systemic racism of its institutions, including the American immigration system.

While the tide of inequities and injustices confronting immigrant communities is nothing new, it has risen dramatically in recent years, the result of stepped-up enforcement and the relentless advancement of anti-immigrant policies. {snip}

Despite the devastating consequences of these policies and practices, immigrants do not have the right to a lawyer in immigration court. {snip}

But political forces at the local level are providing some hope. In the midst of this chaos, a movement has been building to provide lawyers for all immigrants facing deportation through local collaborations.

Prior to 2017, locally funded programs to provide public defenders to those facing deportation existed in only two states. Today, there are nearly 40 jurisdictions across 18 states that provide lawyers to as many immigrants as possible facing deportation.

Some of these programs are funded solely through budget allocations at the local and state level. Others are supported by more complex partnerships: In 21 of these jurisdictions, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Initiative coordinates local governments with legal service providers and advocates to secure universal representation programs. According to a recent national poll by the Vera Institute, these programs are widely supported by the public: 87% of people polled support government-funded lawyers for people in immigration court.


Critical to these efforts is leadership at the local level, including those public officials willing to listen to and follow the lead of advocates in their communities who are on the front lines of this crisis. In recent months, we’ve seen elected officials, mayors and other local leaders recognize the urgency of this moment and fight to prioritize funding for these programs in their city budgets. Philadelphia is one such example: The city launched its universal representation program, the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP), in partnership with Vera in 2019. This year, the program will represent more than 60 immigrants facing deportation, and one-third of the clients it has represented have been released from detention.


Many other jurisdictions have followed suit and not only renewed but secured additional funding for deportation defense. For example, New York State has retained full funding for immigrant legal services, including deportation defense. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed $1 million for the Los Angeles Justice Fund. And other places such as Baltimore; Atlanta; Prince George’s County, Maryland; and Long Beach, California, have all continued or expanded funding for their deportation defense programs. {snip}