Tacoma shouldn’t rush to fund immigrant legal aid

Special to the Sacramento Bee

For a place that calls itself a “welcoming city” while passing up the hot-button “sanctuary city” label, Tacoma has taken noble steps to try to keep up with the Joneses.

The latest idea to defend the rights of undocumented immigrants caught in the limbo of a hostile Trump administration comes courtesy of a city task force.

It seeks $440,000 in taxpayer money to create a legal aid fund. The beneficiaries would be Tacomans who are locked up and facing deportation at the Northwest Detention Center on the Tideflats.

If the plan is adopted, Tacoma would join a club headlined by New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle — sanctuary cities, all — where elected leaders have OK’d public money to give desperate immigrants the legal counsel they sorely lack.

Members of Tacoma’s immigrant and refugee task force have their hearts in the right place. But their proposal for the city to underwrite the cost of a four-person legal team is a big ask that demands closer scrutiny.

There’s no doubt local immigrants need help avoiding unjust deportations and keeping hard-working families intact. They’re understandably panicked after the White House circulated memos early this year foreshadowing a mass expansion of expedited removals.

While President Obama limited this tool to people detained within 100 miles of the border and in the U.S. no more than 14 days, Trump advisers indicated the dragnet could expand to those detained anywhere in the country who’ve been here up to two years.

Tacoma legal-aid advocates, including News Tribune columnist Matt Driscoll, say establishing a fund “is something we can do quickly.”

But we believe the City Council should resist well-meaning pressure, uphold its fiduciary duty and not rush to act.

Among the questions that must be addressed:

▪  Why limit assistance to people detained for being in the U.S. illegally? Many other immigrants with jobs, homes and kids in local schools could benefit from the services — active community members who are currently unconfined but fearful of being shunted off to the Tideflats.

▪  Would immigrants convicted of crimes be eligible? New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recently ran into a buzzsaw of liberal criticism when he opposed allowing immigrants convicted of serious crimes to tap the city’s $26 million defense fund.

▪  Would local attorneys be enlisted to donate their time? We’d like to see some money spent training up volunteers to represent unauthorized immigrants on a pro-bono basis.

▪  Is $440,000 a sustainable investment, and do Tacomans view it as good stewardship of their tax dollars?

This bottom-line question may generate the most visceral response. Tacomans know this money could fill a lot of potholes, help many homeless folks and do a variety of unfunded good in their neighborhoods.

Sacramento, a city 2 ½ times the size of Tacoma, approved $300,000 for its new program this spring. San Francisco set aside $200,000 to open a new legal aid office for immigrants this year.

Even New York City held the line at $500,000 when it embarked on its first-in-the-nation public defender project for immigrants in 2014 — a modest sum by Big Apple standards.

But let’s assume for a moment that $440,000 is the right number for Tacoma. Who’s to say the city must pay full freight?

Grants, foundations and other private sources should be explored. State and county governments could join with the city, as has happened elsewhere in the country. Cross-border partnerships are another possibility; Mexico this year launched a $50 million legal-aid venture at U.S. consulates.

And don’t forget the federal government, without which the Northwest Detention Center would not exist. Under federal law, immigrants detained for living in the U.S. illegally are entitled to a hearing but not an attorney. This was affirmed in February by a Court of Appeals panel, which ruled detainees had no right to representation in an expedited hearing.

But that ruling has been appealed to the full Ninth Circuit court. Immigration law is changing stupendously fast in the age of Trump. It’s conceivable that the feds someday will absorb the costs of justice for all.

While Tacoma leaders ponder the recommendation of one task force, they would do well to remember the work of another.

Four years ago, the city formed a fiscal sustainability task force. Looking up from the bottom of a deep budget hole, its mission included identifying short- and long- term strategies to reduce city expenses and promote financial integrity.

The outlook is better now, budgeting less painful. Even so, there are ways Tacoma can shine as a “welcoming city” short of spending nearly a half million more dollars on lawyers.