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Virginia’s largest county could be next to help undocumented immigrants fight deportation

Demonstrators gather in support of Agbegnigan Amouzou, a youth soccer coach fighting deportation, in front of the Federal Building in Baltimore on March 26. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Fairfax County is considering creating a taxpayer-funded legal defense fund for immigrants caught in deportation proceedings, part of a growing effort by local governments to counter the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

At a county Board of Supervisors budget hearing Wednesday, advocates argued that a proposed $200,000 pilot program aimed at assisting low-income immigrants — both undocumented and those in the country legally — would send a strong message that Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction doesn’t agree with the spike in immigration arrests that has spread fear in local communities.

“Fairfax has an opportunity to be a regional leader in ensuring that its immigrant residents have access to due process in our nation’s immigration courts,” Jose Magaña-Salgado, an immigration consultant with the Masa Group, told the supervisors.

He said that as a beneficiary of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the White House is trying to eliminate, “I am acutely aware of the need for legal representation for vulnerable immigrants.”

The legal aid program, which also would educate eligible immigrants about their rights, “will help some,” said Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville), who co-sponsored a motion to create the fund with Supervisor Jeffrey C. McKay (D-Lee). “But it’s not the be-all, end-all, because it’s not a lot of money, given the need.”

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency in charge of removal proceedings, does not keep statistics based on local jurisdictions. But data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that about 12,000 Fairfax County residents were in deportation proceedings late last year. About a third of the county’s 1.1 million residents are immigrants.

Under federal law, low-income people are not entitled to a public defender for immigration proceedings, because they are civil rather than criminal cases. As the Trump administration has ramped up enforcement efforts, 30 cities and counties — including Chicago and Los Angeles — have steered tax money toward legal-aid programs to help those who can’t afford to hire lawyers on their own.

“This kind of work has incredible impact,” said Corey Lazar, a senior program associate at the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, which contributes money to legal defense funds created by local governments and often provides training.

The institute says that having a lawyer increases a detained immigrant’s chance of avoiding deportation more than tenfold.

Said Lazar: “Across the nation, nearly 70 percent of detained individuals are going to court by themselves. And they’re winning their cases 3 percent of the time.”

In the Washington region, Prince George’s County has allocated about $200,000 a year to helping undocumented immigrants with legal costs related to deportation proceedings, while much smaller Arlington County has dedicated $100,000 toward services that include fighting deportation.

The District’s budget includes $900,000 for immigrant legal assistance that — to avoid a clash with Congress — is not related to deportation proceedings. The city of Baltimore has a $200,000 legal defense fund for deportation cases.

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The efforts to use tax money and matching grants have caused some controversy, with some critics saying tax revenue should benefit legal residents and others noting that some of the aid programs can be used to help undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of crimes.

Last year, Montgomery County added a long list of restrictions on who could benefit from a $370,000 legal aid fund approved by the Democratic County Council after residents voiced opposition to using public funds to help convicted criminals.

The D.C.-based Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR) — which, along with the CASA immigrant advocacy group, is behind the Fairfax proposal — backed out of participating in the Montgomery County effort after those exclusions were made.

The restrictions “would have made representation almost impractical,” said Kelly White, who oversees CAIR’s adult detention program and is trying to negotiate with Montgomery officials to help all detained immigrants.

In Fairfax, 6 in 10 likely voters approve of the county using funds to help immigrants in deportation proceedings, according to a poll conducted by the University of California at San Diego’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center that was released Wednesday by CASA.

The $200,000 would be a one-time expenditure through July 2020, officials said, used by CAIR and CASA for outreach and legal work.

After that, the program would be considered for more funding through the county’s $13 million Consolidated Community Funding Pool, which supports a variety of programs targeting the indigent.

During a news conference before the budget hearing, immigrant advocates argued that the need for assistance is bound to grow under Trump, who has made halting the flow of asylum seekers across the border a top priority.

“These are truly frightening times,” said Nicholas Marritz, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, which estimates that 41,000 people in Virginia are facing deportation. “As an attorney, I’ve seen firsthand the difference that representation can make in a person’s life.”

Undocumented immigrants can incur large amounts of debt when hiring attorneys on their own, advocates said, in hopes of avoiding a return to violence and economic hardship in their homelands. Patricia Reyes said the legal fees for her sister Araceli, 50, whose long-delayed asylum application is scheduled to be decided in May, have climbed to $6,000.

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Most Fairfax supervisors appear willing to adopt the pilot program, although Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) — the board’s most conservative member — said he is against it.

“These services compete with our ability to fund employee and teacher pay raises,” Herrity said. “They compete with parks, they compete with libraries, with public safety dollars. To me, that’s the real issue.”

McKay, who is running to replace retiring board chairman Sharon Bulova (D) in November, called the program “a social justice issue.”

But, he said, the $200,000 should not be used to help people who have been convicted of serious crimes before entering a deportation proceeding.

“What we’re intending it for are people who are going through a deportation proceeding either unrelated to a crime that’s been committed in Fairfax County or a very minor infraction,” he said.

McKay’s three opponents in the June Democratic primary said the proposal doesn’t go far enough.

Alicia Plerhoples, a law professor at Georgetown University, said there shouldn’t be restrictions on who benefits from legal representation. “When one side doesn’t have a lawyer and isn’t able to properly advocate for themselves, then we aren’t upholding the rule of law,” she said.

Tim Chapman, a developer based in Reston, Va., argued that a broader pool of immigrant advocacy groups should be able to use the money. “The universe of people who could help that undocumented person should not be limited,” he said.

School Board member Ryan McElveen (D-At Large) said a legal defense program for undocumented immigrants is a good step, but hardly enough after several years of the county doing little to assist undocumented immigrants.

“Whoever is elected this fall is going to need to take that issue on,” he said. “Because this is a growing segment of our population, and they’re in need of more protection.”

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