Matt Driscoll

The Tacoma City Council will spend thousands on immigrant legal defense. Is it enough?

The Northwest Detention Center, a privately owned and operated immigration detention center on the Tacoma Tideflats, as seen from the air in 2012. The Tacoma City Council voted Tuesday to spend $50,000 as seed money to create a legal-defense fund for people detained there.
The Northwest Detention Center, a privately owned and operated immigration detention center on the Tacoma Tideflats, as seen from the air in 2012. The Tacoma City Council voted Tuesday to spend $50,000 as seed money to create a legal-defense fund for people detained there. News Tribune file photo

A baby step.

That’s probably the best way to describe the Tacoma City Council’s dedication Tuesday of $50,000 in contingency funds as seed money for the creation of what’s officially being called a “Deportation Defense Subfund.”

In laymen’s terms, the money is intended to help create a legal defense fund for Tacoma residents facing deportation hearings. If it all comes together, the fund will make sure that these residents have access to an attorney if they can’t pay for one.

There’s a lot of uncertainty yet, in case that wasn’t already apparent.

In essence, it’s like the city launched a Kickstarter campaign and threw down the first donation.

Judge the move accordingly.

Chances are that your view of Tuesday night’s decision depends on whether you support the idea of providing legal defense to those facing deportation. Or, how much progress you were hoping to see from the City Council on the matter — and how quickly.

If you think providing Tacomans facing deportation proceedings with legal representation is unquestionably wrong — and I know you’re out there, since I get emails every time I write about the subject — Tuesday night’s decision probably doesn’t sit well.

In all likelihood, the fact that a 2015 study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review that found that detained immigrants who secure legal counsel were 10 times more likely than those without it to be granted legal residency won’t sway you.

A compelling anecdote of a family ripped apart probably won’t do the job, either.

It’s certainly my view that you should be moved by the fact that all that’s really at stake here is providing a fair legal shake to those entangled in the immigration justice system. You know, due process, one of our country’s enduring values.

As Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney for the Tacoma office of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, points out, attorneys in these cases are simply arguing the law as it’s currently written, on behalf of their clients, not “sneaking people into the country.”

Still, I’m not naive. I know even that argument won’t sway some of you.

However, if you — like me — were hoping the City Council would make a larger investment this week, what should be made of this development?

Here’s what’s clear: The money allocated is a small fraction of the $440,000 a task force created by the City Council estimated it would cost to get a real, robust defense fund up and rolling — one with the capability to provide a legal defense to every Tacoman facing deportation without the means to afford an attorney.

The naysayer would call it a pittance.

City Councilman Keith Blocker hopes it will be a spark.

The idea is that, by establishing the fund, other people will feel compelled to contribute. Hopefully, the thinking goes, the fund eventually would grow into something substantial. Once it reaches $100,000, or after three months pass, Tacoma’s Office of Equity and Human Rights would start looking for an outside agency to administer contracts for legal services.

Comparatively, Tacoma’s investment at this point is small beans. Seattle, for instance, dedicated $1 million for legal defense of immigrants and refugees earlier this year. Chicago did the same in late 2016. Washington, D.C. and San Francisco also have dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cause.

Blocker, who sponsored Tuesday’s resolution, clearly saw the $50,000 as a starting point.

“While we acknowledge this is substantially less than the amounts recommended by the task force, our hope is that this small amount will encourage our community partners and residents to donate to the fund and provide an outlet for those wishing to show support to the immigrant community,” Blocker wrote. “We also hope the City Manager will consider allocating the (full) funding recommended by the task force, as part of the mid-biennium adjustment process.”

That’s my hope as well.

There is precedent for even a small, initial gesture blossoming into something much bigger and more powerful. In New York, for instance, the city contributed a mere $500,000 back in 2013 to what has since grown into the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. Two years later that endeavor was able to provide “universal representation” to eligible immigrants with cases before the New York Immigration Court, as well as all New York City residents detained and facing deportation before two New Jersey courts.

It was able to do so because the New York City Council saw the impact the project was having and bumped up its financial commitment to $4.9 million dollars for fiscal year 2015.

Is a similar path possible in Tacoma?

Warden-Hertz rightly points out that this week’s action is “an important first step, but it’s only the first step.” He also notes that sustained funding of the effort would make a real, lasting difference.

He says he’s hopeful. More than anything, it’s the continued persistence and dedication of local immigrant-advocacy groups — which he credits for helping Tuesday’s decision happen — that makes him feel that way.

“I think it is a moment to celebrate the success of the advocacy of many folks in the Tacoma community that this happened, and the City Council for standing up and taking a stand,” he says. “I think it speaks to … the strength of voices from the community, standing up and holding the city accountable for making sure it protects the rights of all Tacomans.”