Local Municipalities Investing in Legal Defense Funds for Immigrants

August 16, 2018 06:53 PM

Immigrants in the Twin Cities could soon be getting more legal help. Leaders in two counties and the city of St. Paul are looking at setting aside nearly half a million dollars for legal aid.

"St. Paul cannot and will not be a city that does nothing while our neighbors are targeted," said Mayor Melvin Carter during his budget address last week.


On Wednesday, the City Council unanimously approved his proposal for an immigrant legal defense fund. Carter plans to spend $100,000 on the program.

"In the weeks and months ahead, my staff will work with an array of partners who serve our immigrant and refugee communities to determine how best to use this new fund for the greatest impact," said Carter through e-mail on Thursday.

He said it will ensure "everyone in our community can access the legal services, support, and resources they need to keep families together, and safe."

A similar initiative has been discussed in Hennepin County, with mixed reactions. It was first brought up last year.

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"The moment I really realized we needed this kind of work was when we heard all of the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from Washington D.C.," said Commissioner Marion Greene.

Next week, the board will decide whether to spend $275,000 to provide legal defense for immigrants and a program to help them understand their rights. It would assist immigrants facing deportation from Sept. 1, 2018 through Dec. 31, 2019.

"This seemed to be filling a gap to bring due process to a group of people who haven't had that protection," said Greene.

Hennepin County issued a request for proposals for partners on this project in May. They decided to work with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, who is also collaborating with the Advocates for Human Rights and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

"In the past we've been able to identify people who could fight their cases and potentially win but because of a lack of resources we couldn't do the full representation and that's heartbreaking," said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center.

He said this funding will allow them to bring on more lawyers and fill those gaps.

County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who is running for governor, said he opposes the funding. He believes spending on this program will grow drastically in the future. He also doesn’t think taxpayer dollars should be used to pay for lawyers for people fighting ICE.

Johnson said there has been a split vote on the resolution during previous readings, with three people opposing it and four supporting it.

According to the most recent data from ICE, in the 2017 fiscal year agents removed 2,841 people from its St. Paul region. During the same timeframe, the agency said 4,175 people were arrested for criminal and non-criminal issues in its St. Paul region.

"We recognize that oftentimes the entire family is upended and goes underground at a moment of fear," said Ryan O’Connor, the Ramsey County manager.

To prevent that from happening, O’Connor said the county is now spending $100,000 to support community partners. They will work with families to make sure they continue to get social and health services while a family member is going through immigration proceedings.

County commissioners unanimously approved the resolution on Tuesday. They also approved leveraging that $100,000 to get matches from community foundations for a legal defense fund.

"This is a very significant issue," said O’Connor.


Callan Gray

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