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In liberal Md. suburb, a heated debate over legal aid for undocumented immigrants

Audience members hold dueling signs during a Montgomery County Council hearing Tuesday on whether to spend public money on lawyers for immigrants facing deportation. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The national debate over federal immigration policies landed in Montgomery County this week, with dozens of residents testifying before the County Council on whether the state’s most populous county should spend taxpayer dollars to provide lawyers to immigrants facing deportation.

Baltimore City and Prince George’s County in Maryland, along with Chicago, Atlanta and other jurisdictions across the country, have launched or expanded legal-aid programs as the Trump administration stepped up efforts to deport immigrants — including those who have no criminal convictions.

Now Montgomery — a county of about 1 million residents, nearly 1 in 3 of whom is foreign-born — is weighing whether to follow suit.

Last month, the all-Democratic council introduced a special appropriation to grant nearly $374,000 from the county’s general fund to the D.C.-based nonprofit Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition to provide lawyers to detained immigrants who are facing deportation.

The proposal would apply to county residents at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $12,140 for an individual and $25,100 for a family of four. Immigrants who have been convicted of certain serious crimes would be ineligible, although the exact list of crimes is still being formulated.

Immigration violations are civil, not criminal, matters, so those facing deportation are not entitled to public defenders.

“A lot of folks have asked why we’re considering such an important or significant item, and it is certainly my belief what this country should be focusing on is comprehensive immigration reform,” council president Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said at the beginning of the meeting Tuesday, held in a packed council hearing room. “If that was passed at the federal level, many, many of our residents would have a pathway to citizenship, and efforts like this would not be necessary. But here we are.”

The council didn’t take action at the meeting, and a vote on the measure has not yet been scheduled. The audience alternately applauded and hissed as about 40 speakers testified for two hours, with roughly half in favor of the budget outlay and the other half arguing the money would better be spent on services for legal residents.

Kensington resident Eden Fisher Durbin called the idea “moral, just and fiscally responsible,” and said immigrants were part of Montgomery County in a fundamental way.

“All members of our immigrant community shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants, and pay rent to our property owners,” Durbin said. “Who are we if we let our neighbors, those we love or work with or go to school with, be taken away just because they can’t pay for a lawyer?”

Others, including clergy members, urged the council to go further and not exclude those with criminal convictions from qualifying for the legal aid. Immigration attorney Thomas Ragland said the issue was one of fairness.

“I’ve seen firsthand the gross disadvantages of immigrants in our legal system,” he said. “It’s a system in which dockets are massively crowded, government overwhelmingly holds the power.”

But the proposal also drew testimony from residents who argued it wasn’t the responsibility of county taxpayers to fund legal assistance for undocumented immigrants. Several in the audience held up their signs decrying the proposal — “Be responsible with taxpayer $$$” and “When will citizens matter?”

“Paying for legal representation for illegal immigrants is simply another show of defiance against President Trump’s immigration crackdown,” said Pam Smith, a Kensington resident. “That should not be the role of county government.”

Wei Wang said the proposal would be unfair to those who immigrated to the United States legally, such as herself.

“This special appropriation is against American values of fairness,” she said. “It is not fair for legal immigrants who respect U.S. immigration laws.”

Others argued that the county should instead use the money for other purposes, such as providing school supplies for teachers or repaving roads.

Several council members said Wednesday that they believe providing money for lawyers is the right thing to do.

“Things changed when the deportation activity ramped up so much,” said George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), one of three council members running for county executive. “I think our response is commensurate and appropriate.”

Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who is also running for executive in the June 26 primary, said he was “proud of where we’re weighing in” on the national immigration debate.

Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said she was leaning toward approving the spending but still had questions about oversight and whether there were private, philanthropic sources of money for legal defense that could be explored.

“I think at the end of the day, it’s not so much can we afford it, but should we be spending it for this purpose?” Floreen said.

Read more:

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