A $10-million fund will help immigrants fight deportations. But should it help those with violent criminal convictions?
Fearing mass deportations under President Trump, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and County Supervisor Hilda Solis stood together in December to unveil a $10-million fund to hire lawyers to defend local immigrants without legal status.
Modeled after programs in other cities, the L.A. Justice Fund will use city and county money and private donations to help those facing deportation proceedings.
But a proposal to bar immigrants with violent criminal convictions from using the fund is sparking protests from immigration advocacy groups, legal organizations and others in Los Angeles who argue that everyone has the right to an attorney.
The disagreement over who deserves legal representation is the latest issue to divide political leaders and progressive groups.
Some of the same groups fighting the L.A. Justice Fund’s criminal conviction provision also criticized Garcetti’s refusal to label Los Angeles a “sanctuary city.”
The debate over the L.A. Justice Fund mirrors the battle over a statewide legal fund under consideration by the state Legislature. That program, passed by the Senate earlier this month, also bars those with violent criminal convictions.
“The L.A. Justice Fund is designed to provide legal resources and services to those immigrant Angelenos who are Americans by every measure except the papers they hold, and are facing deportation proceedings without a lawyer,” Kivork said.
Garcetti’s position comes after he pushed for second chances for those with criminal pasts, signing a law in December that restricts employers from asking job applicants about criminal convictions until after a conditional offer of employment has been made.
More than 1 million of the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without legal status live in Los Angeles County, and advocates argue Los Angeles needs to be prepared for the threat of deportations.
Some anti-illegal immigration activists have criticized the L.A. Justice Fund, calling the program a waste of taxpayer dollars that interferes with the federal government’s immigration policies.
Under the fund’s rules, those convicted of or appealing a conviction for a violent felony as defined in subdivision (c) Section 667.5 of the California Penal Code, which includes crimes of murder, rape, and robbery, would be barred from accessing the fund.
Convictions for human trafficking, child abuse, domestic violence and pimping also could prevent someone from accessing the fund, according to the city of L.A.’s guidelines for the justice fund.
The city’s criteria for the fund — L.A. will give a total of $2 million — differs slightly from the county’s guidelines by giving the attorney the right to decide whether a defendant with a violent criminal felony conviction has a claim to fight deportation.
The city doesn’t want to fund a legal case if there’s no chance that the defendant will prevail, City Councilman Gil Cedillo said in an interview.
“We’re being realistic about this,” Cedillo said.
In the criminal justice system, defendants are entitled to court-appointed attorneys if they can’t afford one. But people facing deportation are not entitled to counsel.
Carmen Iguina, an attorney with ACLU of Southern California, argues the L.A. Justice Fund should be accessible to all immigrants, stating that everyone has the right to due process.
“We shouldn’t be saying that there are good and bad immigrants,” Iguina said.
Solis said she believes the county contribution — $1 million this year — is such a small amount that the county needs to prioritize who should be helped.
There has to be “rationality in terms of what our limitations are,” Solis said.
The supervisor also expressed frustration that she’d been targeted by protesters, some of whom are comparing her position on the L.A. Justice Fund to Trump’s position that he wants to deport “bad hombres.”
About 40 people gathered outside the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday to protest the fund’s lack of universal access. The Board of Supervisors ultimately pulled a vote on the fund after failing to muster enough support to pass the motion.
County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said in a statement the following day that she’s concerned that the criminal conviction provision could deny legal help to those who have mistakenly been labeled as having such a conviction.
Immigration advocates cite similar programs in New York City that also use taxpayer dollars but don’t bar those with criminal convictions.
Excluding those with violent criminal convictions is “defining people by the worst things they’ve done,” said Steve Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “People have done their time. Why punish them again through the immigration system?”
A Solis spokeswoman said Friday that the Board of Supervisors vote on the L.A. Justice Fund hasn’t been rescheduled. It’s also unclear when the L.A. City Council will hear a similar motion on the fund.
At a committee hearing on the L.A. Justice Fund last month, Councilwoman Nury Martinez said she wanted to ensure that those convicted of “heinous crimes” can’t use the fund.
She pointed to her work fighting human traffickers in her San Fernando Valley district.
“Folks like that shouldn’t have access to this type of money and shouldn’t have access to this representation,” Martinez said.
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