People rally in Columbia Heights in July to protest recent arrests in the neighborhood of undocumented immigrants by federal agents. Some called on D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to do more to protect residents. (Arelis Hernández/THE WASHINGTON POST)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) often touts her administration’s immigrant legal-aid fund when activists say she hasn’t done enough to protect undocumented residents from President Trump’s immigration crackdown.

The mayor’s office has awarded $1 million to nonprofit organizations that have used the money to file dozens of asylum and visa applications, hold informational sessions about immigration law and train attorneys to offer pro bono help to immigrants.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reported hundreds of arrests in the Washington region in recent months, although statistics were not readily available for immigrants who specifically were living in the District. But unlike other cities that have created immigrant defense funds since Trump took office, Washington does not use tax dollars to help undocumented adults once they are detained by federal authorities and face deportation.

Some advocates say those cases need the most help, and D.C. Council members set aside $400,000 in this year’s budget to do just that. But the Bowser administration redirected that money into its grants program for immigrant legal services, which drew 23 applications for $900,000 in grants to be awarded next month.

Aides to Bowser say the program was already on precarious ground because of attention from Republicans in Congress, which has veto power over the District’s laws and spending. By not funding the legal defense of detained immigrants, the city eliminated the most contentious issue, they said.


D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) at a news conference in August. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Training attorneys, teaching immigrants about their rights, and helping immigrants with asylum and visa applications is “the best way we can help and have a program that survives congressional scrutiny,” said John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff.

When a few dozen protesters rallied outside city hall after ICE detained 132 immigrants in the District and Virginia this summer, the mayor’s staff distributed fliers promoting the grants.

“They bring up immigrant legal services precisely because they do not want to address people detained by ICE,” said Todd Brogan, a local Democratic Party official and progressive activist. “It’s their way of saying, ‘We do stuff for immigrants without actually doing stuff for the immigrants being detained.’”

Bowser’s critics agree that nonprofit groups benefiting from the mayor’s grant program do valuable work. While the grants are administered by the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs, groups serving Asian and African immigrants have also received funding.

The first nonprofit groups to receive grants in 2017 offered initial consultations to more than 300 immigrants, drew 800 people to know-your-rights sessions and trained 183 attorneys on immigration matters, according to reports submitted to the city. They also reported filing 33 citizenship and 60 visa applications and opening 59 asylum cases in 2017.

Comparable figures are not yet available for 2018 grant recipients.

Briya Charter School — a public charter school that provides classes to parents and their children, including English, digital literacy, parenting and early education, as well as high school diploma programs — used the grant funding to partner with a law firm to offer 100 subsidized consultations between students and attorneys and hold nine know-your-rights assemblies.

“There can be misinformation that’s spread and situations where people will commit fraud and pretend to be lawyers or pretend to be notaries and take advantage of people, especially when those people are fearful,” said Raquel Farah, student services coordinator at Briya. “So it’s important for us to have a trustworthy resource that gets them factual information that they can trust about their case.”

Some grant recipients said the money should be made available for detained immigrants, even if they aren’t equipped to provide those services.

“There’s a real threat to due process, and there’s a real need to provide those kind of services,” said Amaha Kassa of African Communities Together, a group that assists detained immigrants in New York and has used grant funding in the District to provide proactive legal assistance to 35 mostly Ethio­pian residents. “It’s more resource-intensive to meet with your lawyer if you are detained.”

The Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition is the biggest regional organization offering legal services to detained immigrants. It has received funding from Baltimore City and Prince George’s County in Maryland. The group declined to seek a grant from a similar program in Montgomery County after officials added restrictions regarding which immigrants could benefit.

Elsewhere in the country, New York offers the equivalent of a public defender program for immigrants in detention. Los Angeles, Seattle and other large cities also use public money to help detained immigrants. The Vera Institute of Justice offers matching funds to 11 jurisdictions that use public dollars for deportation defense, including Atlanta, Chicago and Sacramento.

Unlike in criminal cases, there is no right to counsel in immigration proceedings.

“If you cannot afford an attorney, you have to go before an immigration judge and prosecuting attorney on your own,” said Annie Chen, the immigration project manager for New York-based Vera. “More local governments are seeing local community members ending up in immigration detention and deportation, and they are seeing more of the need for these programs in their community.”

The D.C. Council tried to address this issue in the most recent budget cycle by redirecting the mayor’s proposed $400,000 increase to the legal-grants program to the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, with the goal of providing direct legal representation to immigrants who have been detained.

The Bowser administration instead kept the money in the legal-grants program, saying that the purpose of the extra funds was not specified in the budget and that it makes more sense to have one agency managing the whole program. But one lawmaker said the move defies the will of the council.

“Once they are detained, we have to get them legal representation. There’s a very clear need especially now that ICE has come to our community,” said council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who represents one of the most immigrant-heavy parts of the city. “Right now, we haven’t met the legal need for representation. I don’t see that changing if the executive doesn’t take that need seriously.”

Bowser’s office also relaxed other restrictions on the grant program, such as allowing recipients to use funds for children in deportation proceedings.

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) has used $80,000 in grants to hire a second full-time attorney and a part-time paralegal to handle complex cases involving unaccompanied minors who crossed the border. The attorney is involved in nearly 50 cases as either the primary lawyer or a mentor to an outside attorney offering a child in the District legal services pro bono.

Some of those urgent cases have included children on the verge of turning 18 who needed a judge to issue a stay for their cases before their birthday, and several children with disabilities, documentation complications and other issues.

“Attorneys make a huge difference in these kids’ cases,” said Priya Konings, the deputy director of legal services for KIND. “To have a child go before immigration court without one is a travesty.”