Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said the county council would vote Tuesday on whether to fund legal aid for undocumented immigrants. The story has been updated to show that the council debated the issue but did not vote.
Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction is weighing whether to turn to its own coffers to combat President Trump’s immigration crackdown — using public money to defend immigrants facing deportation.
Montgomery County Council members say they expect some pushback to the proposal to spend $373,957 to supply lawyers to county residents who are in immigration detention. Some lawmakers already have received irate emails.
But Council President Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said he is “highly confident” Montgomery will join a growing number of localities and states that are funding lawyers for immigrants who cannot afford their own.
“The federal government is targeting our residents and our communities,” Riemer said at a briefing to describe the budget appropriation that was debated Tuesday. “So we need to respond.”
New York and California have statewide programs to provide legal representation to immigrants facing deportation proceedings. In Maryland, the city of Baltimore and Prince George’s County are part of the Vera Institute of Justice’s national SAFE Cities Network, which includes 11 jurisdictions that provide publicly funded lawyers to immigrants.
Montgomery’s proposal would allocate money from the county’s general fund to the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR), a Washington-based nonprofit that would provide the legal work.
The council has scheduled a public hearing on the issue for May 1.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, several lawmakers spoke in favor of the proposal, while some acknowledged the idea will face opposition — even in diverse Montgomery, where an estimated 3 in 10 residents are foreign-born.
“We have all said that we are not going to stand by while the Trump administration intimidates and terrorizes and victimizes a very substantial part of our population,” said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).
He advised the council to prepare themselves for an onslaught of emails, including from some who are against the spending.
“Get the illegals out, then money might be available for something like the roads,” Leventhal read, quoting from one email he said he received.
Avideh Moussavian, senior policy attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said efforts to provide publicly funded lawyers for detained immigrants gained steam after the 2016 presidential election.
“We saw the convergence of a lot of different dramatic policy changes that were going to increase the likelihood that people would be subject to detention and possible deportation,” Moussavian said.
Under the Trump administration, immigrants with no criminal convictions have been arrested for immigration violations at an increasing rate, according to a report by the American Immigration Lawyers Association cited by county council staff. Being in the country illegally is a civil — not criminal — violation, so those arrested are not entitled to public defenders if they can’t afford a lawyer of their own.
The number of immigrants eligible for deportation is likely to rise in coming months, as the federal government ends temporary protected status for Haitians and Salvadorans and attempts to phase out the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
This month, the U.S. Justice Department plans to temporarily halt a federally funded program — also run by Vera — that gives legal information to detained immigrants facing deportation. The government says it wants to assess whether the program is cost-effective.
Montgomery’s program would apply to those facing deportation whose household income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level — $12,140 for an individual and $25,100 for a family of four — and who have not been convicted of major crimes, such as murder, rape, kidnapping or involvement in a criminal gang.
The list of disqualifying crimes could be expanded, council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said Tuesday, noting concerns from the state’s attorney’s office about some serious crimes that were not included in the current language.
“We congratulate the council for being this bold,” said George Escobar, senior director of human services at CASA, an immigrant-advocacy group that lobbied for the measure.
He said he wants to make sure minor criminal offenses are not added to the list of disqualifying offenses. Escobar also said he hopes the county will consider a dedicated funding stream to keep the program in place permanently.
CAIR estimates that the proposal under consideration would allow it to screen all county residents who are detained for immigration proceedings to determine whether they qualify for the assistance and provide legal representation for the estimated 85 to 90 people who would probably face deportation this year. The organization represented seven such immigrants from Montgomery in 2017 and four in 2016.
Claudia Cubas, litigation director for CAIR, said “a good portion of people” her organization sees are from Montgomery — and without the program, many would continue to go without legal representation.
“If we truly value the diversity of county residents, then we will help to protect them and help to assure they really get a right to get due process in immigration courts,” she said.
Escobar also urged the council to pass a local version of the Trust Act, which was a statewide measure that would have prohibited local and state police from assisting with federal immigration enforcement efforts. The act passed the House of Delegates last year, but did not make it out of the Senate.
Riemer said the council may take up that issue in the summer.