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Supervisors to spend $1 million on immigrant legal aid fund

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors voted June 20 to contribute $1 million to a legal aid fund for people at risk of deportation and confirmed that anyone convicted of a violent felony will not be eligible to benefit from the fund.

The eligibility requirements for the county’s share of the L.A. Justice Fund — specifically the prohibition of convicted felons — drew protests from immigration advocates in April and forced the board to cancel a planned vote on the matter.

Civil rights advocates opposed to the exclusion said it amounted to unequal representation and ignored the fact that immigrants often “plead up” to more serious crimes based on legal advice that the crimes are “immigration-safe.”

Though the board and other contributors to the L.A. Justice Fund have cited the threat of new immigration policies of President Donald Trump, protesters accused county officials of playing into Trump’s framework of “good” and “bad” immigrants.

The board’s vote focused on finalizing an agreement with the California Community Foundation to act as the county’s intermediary in granting aid. That agreement included an exhibit spelling out the eligibility criteria.

In addition to prohibiting those with a felony conviction and reserving aid for low-income immigrants, the county will prioritize help for:

• Individuals with community ties to Los Angeles County, such as family members who are U.S. citizens.

•Heads of households with one or more dependent family members.

• Unaccompanied children and young adults who arrived as children.

• Veterans.

• Individuals with protection-based claims, such as refugees seeking asylum.

• And victims of crime, domestic violence and human trafficking.

Supervisor Hilda Solis said an estimated 7,000 county residents face deportation proceedings without a lawyer every year.

“The legal system is often-times tricky and can be difficult to navigate,” Solis said. “On top of that, if you are an immigrant facing deportation, you are likely to speak a different language, be unfamiliar with complicated legal processes and be unable to afford a lawyer to represent you.

“Today, the board took a significant step to create a safety net for immigrants, one that is pro-family, pro-economic growth and stability, and pro-civil and human rights.”

The Boston Immigrant Justice Initiative found that it costs about $5,000 in legal fees on average to contest a civil deportation case. The same group said that 98 percent of individuals without legal representation in such cases were deported between 2007-12.

Niels Frenzen, director of USC’s Gould School of Law Immigration Clinic, said the county’s money would free up other funds for immigrants with prior convictions.

“When there are limited funds, it’s not always possible to provide for the representation of everyone facing removal proceedings,” Frenzen said.

“However, the county’s contribution to the L.A. Justice Fund provides significant new funding for immigrants under the threat of deportation who do not have felony records, which in turn frees providers to use non-L.A. Justice Fund funds to represent other immigrants, including those with criminal histories.”

The L.A. Justice Fund is aiming to raise $10 million. The county intends to contribute an additional $2 million in fiscal year 2018-19 and the city of Los Angeles has tentatively committed $2 million, an amount approved by a council committee June 19.

The city’s criteria also exclude anyone convicted of or appealing a conviction for a violent felony, however, some council members asked for clarification on that point before a vote by the full council.

Private entities are expected to contribute the remainder of the $10 million and can set their own rules for eligibility.

The board’s vote was 4-1, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger dissenting.

“Our federal immigration system is broken,” Barger said. “It is the federal government’s responsibility to support states and counties in their efforts to address the costs of illegal immigration. … County taxpayers should not be forced to bear the cost to provide free legal representation for those facing deportation.”