Gov. Jerry Brown has earmarked an extra $15 million in the state's budget to expand legal defense services for people battling deportation, a move that could be interpreted as a response to the Trump administration's broadened immigration enforcement orders.
The one-time cash infusion would boost the state government's financial help to those in the country illegally to $33 million. Immigrant rights groups and lawyers hailed the increased funding in Brown's revised state budget, calling it a signal that the state is committed to protecting families from what could happen under President Trump.
But while the total funds are enough to support existing services, policy analysts said lawmakers might need almost double this amount to fund the other new legal initiatives under consideration at the state Capitol.
"We urge the Legislature to deepen its investment in programs," said Ronald Coleman, government affairs director for the California Immigrant Policy Center. "It is going to be key given that California can be ground zero for the devastation that we would face from Donald Trump's deportation policies."
Improving legal defense for immigrants has been a significant part of a legislative package proposed by Democrats, in an attempt to assist more than 2 million people living in the state illegally. Among the proposals is a $14-million request to provide legal training, written materials, mentoring and technical assistance to county public defenders on the immigration consequences of criminal convictions.
Opponents to the programs have argued against using taxpayer money to help offenders in the face of potential funding cuts from the federal government. And debate in Sacramento has simmered over who should be served with the limited resources.
On the state Senate floor last month, Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) said he had to reduce the scope of SB 6, which would fund the $12-million legal initiative, to prioritize immigrants with children, immigrants with parents who are citizens, veterans and asylum seekers.
Proponents say the legislative proposals come as lawyers and advocates across the country have sought to increase government-funded access to counsel for immigrants. The movement has centered on showing that many immigrants would be granted relief if they had the resources to prove their cases and that for some, the repercussions of deportation could lead to death.
California's first attempt at a statewide legal defense program came in 2014, when $3 million was spent on providing legal aid to an unprecedented number of children arriving alone at the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America.
Two years later, the state had authorized nearly $30 million for the development of "One California," a federal assistance program to help thousands of immigrants apply for naturalization and former President Obama's deferred action programs, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents.
As of fiscal year 2015, the state Department of Social Services, which administered both legal defense initiatives, had contracted with nonprofits to serve more than 1,300 children, with an average cost per case totaling $5,000. Its second program had awarded a little over $14 million to 61 organizations and was in the midst of finalizing contracts for the 2016 fiscal year, for over $29 million to about 80 immigration and legal aid groups.
Last week's revised budget preserves the $3 million allotment for the unaccompanied minors program and an ongoing $15 million allocation for One California. Its one-time $15 million effort would further expand legal services for people seeking naturalization services, deportation defense or assistance in receiving other legal immigration status.
Brown's office declined to comment on funds, and any changes on the use of the dollars must be hashed out with the Legislature.
Laura Polstein, an immigration senior staff attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza, called the new money a "game changer" for immigration lawyers struggling to provide adequate representation on the ground.
Maya Ingram, a legislative advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said her organization was heartened to see California "take long overdue steps to even the playing field."
"The federal government has tipped the scales of justice against immigrants fighting to remain in their communities, working, and contributing to our state by forcing them to navigate the legal maze of deportation proceedings alone," she said.