Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer, best known for his environmental activism, is stepping up support of immigrant rights with a $2.3-million donation to the University of California Immigrant Legal Services Center and seven other organizations.
The gift from Steyer's nonprofit, NextGen America, will support a national legal services network to help recruit and train more advocates for immigrants. About $90,000 will help the UC center hire a full-time immigration attorney for a year at UC Riverside, where Steyer visited Friday.
NextGen also plans to help the UC center share its legal services model with schools across the country. The center, launched by UC President Janet Napolitano in 2015, is the nation's first and only university system to offer free legal services to immigrants and their families who are in the country illegally.
"From increased ICE raids to the repeal of DACA to the Muslim travel ban, Donald Trump and his administration are systematically attacking the immigrant community," Steyer said in a statement Friday. "Many live in fear that at any moment they will be ripped away from their family with no one in their corner to defend them. Our partnership with the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center will allow more students and their families, in California and across the nation, to seek the legal guidance they not only need but have a fundamental right to receive."
Maria Blanco, the UC center's executive director, said the support comes at a crucial time for vulnerable immigrants — especially the nearly 800,000 young people who have received temporary reprieves from deportation and access to work permits under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Last month, the Trump administration announced it would end the program but gave Congress a six-month window to save it. California is home to the nation's largest number of DACA recipients — about 223,000, nearly twice as many as the next largest, in Texas. About 4,000 UC students are immigrants without legal status.
Blanco said nearly 1,000 young people nationally and about 280 in California each day are losing their DACA status, subjecting them to possible loss of jobs or deportation. "It's really creating a lot of stress," she said.
She said she hoped that Steyer's contribution — the center's first private donation not to come from traditional immigrant rights groups — would inspire others to follow suit. Last year, Napolitano pledged $2.5 million over three years, but Blanco is looking for funding to sustain the center after that. Cases soared to about 800 in the 2016-17 academic year from 362 the previous year.
"Since the election and especially the rescission of DACA, a wider section of people concerned about access to higher education and opportunity are becoming more aware that here's a generation we may lose if there aren't a whole series of programs for them," she said.
Natasha Fain, NextGen legal consultant and human rights attorney, said as many as 20% of vulnerable immigrant students could be eligible for permanent legal status. She said she would work with UC to develop webinars, tool kits and other ways to help campuses understand why and how to help provide legal services to those students.
"They're American students who have grown up here," Fain said. "We're going to support them and treat them with the same dignity we treat other American students."
Other legal services grant recipients are the UC Davis School of Law's Immigration Law Clinic, UC Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Center for Community Change, American Immigration Lawyers Assn. and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.