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Santa Ana approves more funding for deportation defense fund

A guard patrols the Adelanto detention facility.
A guard patrols the Adelanto detention facility. Orange County’s immigration detainees were transferred there when a contract between the Sheriff’s Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in 2019.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Undocumented Santa Ana residents fighting deportation proceedings may have better access to legal services after Santa Ana increased funding to its critical deportation defense fund this week.

The City Council authorized another $100,000 for the fund as part of its approval of the city’s budget on Tuesday night, bringing the total fund to $300,000. The council also made the defense fund a recurring line item on each year’s budget.

The city’s deportation defense fund, started in 2017, allows Santa Ana residents facing potential deportation to secure an attorney they would otherwise not be able to afford. Santa Ana is the only city in Orange County to provide legal defense support to immigrants facing deportation.

Several groups had been advocating for the expansion of the fund, including the O.C. Justice Fund, Vera Institute of Justice, the Harbor Institute for Immigrant and Economic Justice, VietRISE and the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, which has been the contracted recipient of the fund since its inception.

The groups held an online forum with Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento and Councilwoman Jessie Lopez a few weeks ago before the funding increase and budget were initially approved on June 1. This week’s approval was the second reading of the budget.

“We’re encouraged of the further commitment in making sure that Santa Ana residents and those who have ties to Santa Ana will continue to have legal support if anybody is placed into removal proceedings,” said Lisa Okamoto, an attorney with Immigrant Defenders Law Center. “I’m grateful that not only have they continued to fund it but that they have increased the funding as well.”

Okamoto said the increased funds will allow attorneys to take on more cases, and the firm’s case managers are now also better equipped to further help clients with housing and food insecurity, a common struggle for people involved in removal proceedings.

The advocacy groups were also pushing for an expansion of the fund to better serve the Vietnamese community of Santa Ana. More than 25,000 Vietnamese Americans live in the city.

Amid reports of growing Asian-hate incidents around the country, Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan and others have been pushing for better representation for the Asian communities of Santa Ana. As part of the budget approval, the council also created a Vietnamese Community Liaison in the city, which Phan had been advocating for.

Allison Vo, youth organizing coordinator with VietRISE, pointed out in an interview that there has only ever been one other Asian elected official before Phan claimed a seat on the council late last year. Phan is the first Vietnamese American and first Asian woman on the council.

“It’s an affirmation that this is a service that is absolutely needed when we are trying to advance immigrant justice,” Vo said of the council’s expansion of the defense fund. “This is about equal access to justice and ensuring that immigrants are not excluded from due process. So it sends a very strong message that Santa Ana is committed to this, and I think there’s an opportunity as well for other cities to witness the success of this program and see how they can also implement a legal defense fund for their immigrant communities.

“The Vietnamese community is the second most impacted community to be impacted by immigration enforcement. In Santa Ana alone, given the history of exclusion and lack of access to government resources as a result of language capacity, but also language and cultural competency, a lot of the Vietnamese residents have been left out. We wanted to make sure that the increase for this fund also made a concerted effort to reach the Vietnamese community and begin strengthening the bridges for trust and belonging.”

Okamoto said Immigrant Defenders is working on how best to further reach the Vietnamese community in Santa Ana, such as working with the Vietnamese liaison and other in-person outreach efforts.

“It’s one of our goals and intent with this expanded program to ensure that our outreach and our legal services can reach the Vietnamese community,” Okamoto said.

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