Los Angeles city and county leaders on Monday unveiled a $10-million fund to provide legal assistance for residents facing deportation, the region's boldest move yet as it prepares for an expected crackdown on illegal immigration by Donald Trump.
If approved by lawmakers, Los Angeles' two top government agencies could find themselves in the position of using public funds to challenge policies sought by the White House and Republican Congress.
The fund represents another provocative pushback against the Trump agenda in heavily Democratic California, but outside legal experts said the local government agencies are likely within their right to use the money for these purposes.
Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said the fund will ensure that there is "more fairness and more effectiveness in the immigration system." He cited statistics showing that immigrants who have representation have a better chance at succeeding in court.
Still, some anti-illegal immigration activists criticized the move, saying it's a waste of taxpayer dollars and interferes with the federal government's immigration policies.
L.A. officials "should be focused on assisting the citizens, [not] taking tax dollars to pay for services to assist illegal residents countywide," said Robin Hvidston, executive director of We the People Rising, a Claremont-based organization against illegal immigration. The money, she added, would be better spent on unemployed citizens, veterans, disabled and the elderly.
L.A. Justice Fund would receive at least $5 million total from city and county government. Philanthropic groups would donate the rest of the money. The California Endowment, the state's largest private healthcare foundation, plans to give the fund $2 million, according to a foundation spokeswoman.
The legal fund, aimed at helping immigrants who can't afford attorneys, follows similar efforts at the state and national level to provide protections for migrants.
The move come as immigration groups are demanding that Los Angeles political leaders take a harder line against the incoming Republican president. More than 1 million of the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without legal status live in Los Angeles County, and local groups argue Los Angeles needs to be prepared for the threat of deportations.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said the fund would help the region's "most vulnerable" immigrants, including undocumented minors, refugees and military families.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote Tuesday on allocating $1 million this budget year toward the fund, with a commitment to add $2 million more in the coming years, according to Supervisor Hilda Solis' office.
Several similar bills to aid immigrants are pending at the state level. Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) introduced legislation earlier this month to create a state program to pay for legal representation for those facing deportation, while Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) wants to create state-funded centers to train attorneys on immigration law.
It remains far from clear what city governments can do to block or even delay deportations, which are under the jurisdiction of the federal government. But Trump's win has mayors in Democratic-majority cities scrambling to adopt new policies or allocate funds.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel this month announced the creation of a $1.3-million "legal protection" fund, created in partnership with the National Immigrant Justice Center. San Francisco is also weighing various plans to help fund legal services for immigrants, while New York City already directs money for such programs.
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, an L.A.-based immigrant rights organization, said that many immigrants do not fight their cases because they can't afford lawyers, or they fall victim to unscrupulous attorneys.
"That's about to change in Los Angeles, and we applaud the initiative," Salas said.
CHIRLA was part of a coalition of immigrant rights advocates, unions and legal organizations that sent a letter last month to Garcetti, the City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors calling for more aggressive action in the face of possible deportations.
The letter warned that "abstract statements and vague promises will not be enough to confront the threat we now face" and sought a list of demands, including the creation of a legal defense fund.
But Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates for restrictions on immigration, questioned the "dubious use of scarce taxpayer dollars."
"Immigration proceedings are a civil matter, not criminal, and no Americans who are defending themselves in civil proceedings are entitled to taxpayer-funded representation," Vaughan said. She also questioned whether taxpayer money will be used for immigration cases that involve criminals who should be deported.
Some immigrants in the country illegally do have serious criminal histories. Others have committed low-level crimes that are considered deportable offenses but are relatively minor, such as low-level misdemeanors or immigration violations, which include illegal re-entry.
Garcetti said Monday that the L.A. Justice Fund would help "law-abiding" immigrants. Asked by a reporter if that meant that anyone with a criminal history would be disqualified from receiving aid, the mayor said no. He added the city will continue to work with federal immigration authorities to crack down on serious criminals.
Ingrid Eagly, professor of law at UCLA, said she sees no legal risk for the city and county in using taxpayer money for the program.
"The city and state have historically used taxpayer funds to provide legal services for the poor, which includes both citizens and non-citizens," Eagly said. "It's consistent with the policy of the state and the city, which is a welcoming and inclusive policy."
Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 approved $3 million in taxpayer money to fund legal help for child migrants, money that followed the surge in children crossing the border to flee violence from Central America.
City and county representatives said the fund is one of the first times local taxpayer money has been allocated to provide legal services for those without documentation.
12:00 p.m.: This story was updated with new information from Garcetti about how much money the city will give to the legal fund.
11 a.m.: This story has been updated with background on Donald Trump and the L.A. efforts.