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Immigrants with criminal records would be eligible to apply for services under changes to legal defense bill

Immigrants wait in line on consultation day at the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
Immigrants wait in line on consultation day at the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

A state senator plans to amend a bill that would create a legal defense program for immigrants, making all people facing deportation in California eligible to apply for services regardless of criminal background.

Immigrant advocates and legal aid agencies have lauded the compromise, which they said would counter anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration associating illegal immigration with violent crime.

But it remains to be seen how moderate Democrats and Republicans, who have argued against using taxpayer funds to defend dangerous offenders, will accept the move.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego), would require the California Department of Social Services to contract with local nonprofits to provide lawyers for immigrants caught in deportation or removal proceedings. It also would create a trust to accept private and philanthropic donations to cover legal aid.

From its inception, lawmakers have debated over who should benefit from the state-funded initiative as California faces a budget deficit and potential cuts to federal funding.

Hueso initially sought to provide counsel to all immigrants. But before the bill's first hearing in January, he amended it to exclude services for all those convicted of a violent felony under the state penal code .

Hueso's office is now considering an amendment that would make all immigrants eligible for screening. But it would prohibit representation of clients convicted of a violent crime unless they have "a meritorious claim for relief from deportation," meaning the person has a high likelihood of not being removed from the U.S. based on the facts of the case.

The change is being weighed because immigrants in some cases have been convicted of crimes they did not commit.

At a hearing Wednesday before the state Senate Judiciary Committee, representatives from several legal service groups said they were rescinding their opposition to the legislation based on the coming amendments.

Everyone in the U.S. is entitled to due process, or fair treatment under the law, regardless of legal status, lawyers told the committee. And "the consequences in removal proceedings are just as dire... in some instances more so than in a criminal context," said Raha Jorjani, an immigration lawyer with the Alameda County public defender's office.

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