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Montgomery County considers changing tack on legal aid for immigrants

Proponents of a Montgomery County Council bill on whether to spend $374,000 in public money to defend immigrants who live in the county and who are facing deportation proceedings cheer during the public hearing May 1 in Rockville. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Earlier versions of this story incorrectly characterized the immigration deportation defense program in Prince George’s County, which is a public-private partnership between the county and the Vera Institute of Justice, with legal services provided by the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR). While immigrants with certain previous criminal convictions are not eligible to be represented by CAIR using public funds, they are eligible using Vera funding. The story has been corrected.

The Montgomery County Council, which had intended to grant nearly $374,000 to a District nonprofit organization to provide legal representation for detained immigrants, plans to alter its approach after the group said it wouldn’t accept the grant because the council lengthened the list of criminal convictions that would disqualify someone from getting aid.

Council President Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said the council on Tuesday will consider an alternative — a grant or contract with a nonprofit group to provide lawyers for immigrants in the county who are facing deportation, regardless of whether they are in detention facilities.

Riemer said the change would help more immigrants while leaving intact language that would keep the service from those convicted of the specified crimes.

“We believe that everyone should have a lawyer, but we don’t think that we can pay for legal representation for everybody,” he said. “We want to be able to support people who do not have criminal convictions that are of concern.”

Push for tax-funded lawyers for immigrants comes to Maryland’s largest county

Because immigration offenses are civil, not criminal, matters, there is no right to a publicly funded defense attorney.

Previously, the council had planned to grant $373,957 to the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, or CAIR, to provide lawyers for immigrants in detention in the county facing deportation proceedings who earn at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Those who have been convicted of any of 22 crimes — including first-degree murder, armed carjacking and sexual abuse of a minor — would have been ineligible for the public assistance.

The proposal was the subject of a two-hour hearing earlier this month that attracted dozens of supporters and opponents. Several on the nine-member, all-Democratic council had said the appropriation was in response to an increased federal crackdown on immigrants under President Trump.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy (D) said he was asked by the council to review the language and had expressed several concerns, including that there were serious crimes not on the exclusion list.

“The list itself was so woefully inadequate to protect the community,” he said.

But after the council added 40 more crimes — ranging from carjacking and felony assault on a law enforcement officer to fraud and obstruction of justice, with some exceptions, such as for U.S. military veterans — CAIR announced that it would refuse to accept the grant.

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

Originally, CAIR estimated it would have been able to represent 85 to 90 immigrants in detention facing deportation. Claudia Cubas, the group’s litigation director, said that under the amended rules, CAIR would have been able to help about a quarter of that number.

“We opposed it on both a moral, ethical and legal standard because it really cuts and blanket excludes people from relief,” Cubas said of the amended proposal.

The impasse was the subject of a news conference Monday afternoon outside McCarthy’s office, where immigrant rights advocates — flanked by opponents of the funding — called on the council to resist adding to the exclusion list.

“Should the council adopt those provisions, the program, in essence, would be gutted and rendered pointless,” George Escobar, senior director of human services at CASA, a Latino and immigration advocacy organization, said while opponents waved signs and called out support for McCarthy.

Cubas said CAIR also works in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City — both jurisdictions that are part of the Vera Institute of Justice’s national SAFE Cities Network. While immigrants with certain previous criminal convictions are not eligible to be represented by CAIR using public funds from Prince George’s, they are eligible using Vera funding. Cubas said CAIR would not accept a truncated program in Montgomery that would help only a few people.

“Due process for just a very few is not due process for all,” Cubas said. “We want due process for all.”

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