Matt Driscoll

Why you should be OK with public money defending immigrant detainees

A task force created by the Tacoma City Council wants $440,000 to launch a defense fund for immigrants detained at the Northwest Detention Center. We should listen.
A task force created by the Tacoma City Council wants $440,000 to launch a defense fund for immigrants detained at the Northwest Detention Center. We should listen. The Seattle Times

The city official didn’t pull any punches.

On a per-year basis, $440,000, he told me, “is a lot of money.”

That’s the number being floated for what it will likely take to establish a legal-defense fund for Tacoma residents detained at the Northwest Detention Center.

The city official is right. Roughly half a million dollars a year — enough to pay for two lawyers and two paralegals — is a considerable amount of cash.

But especially in Tacoma, where the detention center resides as a disgraceful stain on the Tideflats, finding a way to establish a fund to provide legal counsel to Tacomans who find themselves locked up there — even if it costs $440,000 a year — would be money well spent.

Call it a moral obligation. Call it a first step toward doing what’s right.

Or just call it what it clearly is: Something concrete and tangible the city can do, in the age of Trump, to ensure that those facing deportation get the legal representation they deserve.

While most people facing criminal charges are guaranteed legal representation under the U.S. Constitution, the same can’t be said for those with a date in immigration court.

If they can afford a private attorney, great.

If not, well, too bad, so sad.

That’s the way the system is set up. And — predictably — it creates some pretty unjust outcomes for immigrant communities.

As The Atlantic reported earlier this year, a 2015 study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review found that detained immigrants who secure legal counsel were 10 times more likely than those without it to be granted legal residency. At the same time, just 14 percent of detained immigrants were able to secure such legal representation.

The need for better access to legal representation was identified as one of several priorities by a task force created earlier this year by the City Council to zero in on ways Tacoma — as a declared “Welcoming City” — could better serve immigrants and refugees in our city.

It’s not a particularly surprising finding.

Throughout different communities, legal needs were identified as a pressing issue. ... Certainly, when you’re sort of looking at the detention center all day long across the Tideflats, I think that community really felt that need.

task force

“Throughout different communities, legal needs were identified as a pressing issue,” said Tim Warden-Hertz, the lead attorney in the Tacoma office of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and a member of the task force.

The work of the task force included conducting more than 500 surveys with folks from immigrant and refugee communities in the area, he said.

“Certainly, when you’re sort of looking at the detention center all day long across the Tideflats, I think that community really felt that need,” he continued. “There are lots of legal questions, and lots of legal needs.”

Recently, the task force delivered its preliminary findings and recommendations to the City Council. Some were straightforward, such as a need for equitable language access in all city services.

But the proposal for a defense fund for immigrants detained at the detention center, while well received, was also met with plenty of questions.

“We’re trying to understand the issue a little bit more,” explained Councilman Marty Campbell, who represents the city’s East Side and said he supports the idea of an immigrant legal defense fund in principle.

“On the most basic levels, we want to know how big is the need, and what numbers are we really talking about?” he said.

Certainly, those are fair questions to ask. What we already know is that Tacoma would not be alone in creating such a fund, and good models are available.

Earlier this year, Seattle dedicated $1 million for the legal defense of immigrants and refugees who either live or work in the city. Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago have done the same.

One of the more impressive efforts comes from New York, where an initial $500,000 in launch money from the City Council helped spawn the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project.

The program – which was so successful it received an additional $4.9 million from the City Council in 2015 — has blossomed into a robust partnership among several justice and immigrant rights projects in the area.

It now provides “universal representation” — or 100 percent legal counsel — to all detained immigrants in the jurisdiction who don’t have access to an attorney and meet certain income requirements.

In Tacoma, Campbell believes partnerships like these might provide an important blueprint for making an immigrant defense fund go. Local nonprofits, he says, would make obvious partners, as would many local industries the benefit from immigrant labor.

Businesses, in particular, feel the impact when legal residents get unjustly detained, Campbell said.

He has a point, and there’s little question that partnerships are worth aggressively pursuing.

But there’s also little question that people from throughout the region end up at the detention center. And declaring that folks from Tacoma (or Seattle, as is the case now) deserve access to legal representation while people from other areas don’t have similar access will still feel arbitrary and unjust.

In other words, even if Tacoma creates a legal defense fund for detained immigrants, there will still be plenty of work to do.

Still, that doesn’t negate the obvious: creating a legal defense fund is something we can do quickly, and something that would help almost immediately.

“I think the task force feels like this is a pressing need right now,” Warden-Hertz said, pointing to families that have loved ones unjustly detained at the center as you read this.

That’s true. As Joan Mell, a local attorney for the private company that operates the detention center told the City Council in April, 35 percent of the detainees at the 1,575-bed center end up with “positive outcomes” in court.

Now, just think what that number might be if everyone had the legal representation they deserve.

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