Politics & Government

County leader has $100K plan for immigrant defense. That would put Tacoma’s effort to shame

It was the stories he heard — firsthand and increasingly in recent years — that made Pierce County Councilman Derek Young want to act.

Young is “at that age,” he says — born in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and during the ensuing genocide in Cambodia. He knows “a number of people … who were refugees” from the two countries, he tells The News Tribune.

The stories he heard were from families who fled genocide and war and were welcomed to the United States decades ago, only now to face being torn apart once again. They were stories from refugees terrified by the actions of a presidential administration that seems haphazardly (and proudly) hellbent on sending more and more immigrants packing each year, with little regard for mitigating circumstances or collateral damage.

That’s why, in the coming weeks, Young plans to introduce an amendment as part of the Pierce County Council’s supplemental budget process that would put $100,000 of county money toward refugee and immigrant defense over the next six months.

The intention, Young says, is to help provide legal representation to indigent refugees facing deportation or others whose immigration status is in danger and don’t have the means of paying for a lawyer. Anyone who crossed the border illegally would not be eligible, he says, citing state law.

It’s an idea a number of cities have pursued in recent years — for good reason. All have made varying commitments, and experienced varying levels of success. In New York, millions in public and private dollars have been allocated, providing defense for thousands. In Seattle and King County, the investment has also been in the millions.

It’s also an idea Tacoma knows something about.

Unfortunately, the city’s efforts have been lukewarm at best.

Jefferson Mok, chair of Tacoma’s Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, aptly describes what the city has done so far as a “half measure.”

“Half measure” might be putting it kindly.

First created with $50,000 of contingency funds in October 2017, Tacoma’s immigrant defense fund was optimistically envisioned as something akin to a GoFundMe. Leaders — including City Councilman Keith Blocker, who championed the idea — hoped local people and businesses would be inspired to chip in.

This kept the city’s investment modest (some might say minimal, especially considering the Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs recommended $440,000 be spent), while still allowing politicians to chalk up the creation of the fund as an achievement. In January 2019, the city added $50,000 out of the general fund, which is nice, but well below what’s actually needed — especially considering the funding is stretched through the end of next year.

Compare this to Young’s proposal, which if successful will allocate the same amount of money over a matter of months. Even with this, he says, there will be an “unmet need out there that is going to be huge.”

The cold truth is the GoFundMe approach simply hasn’t worked.

By December 2017, as KNKX’s Will James reported, less than $2,000 had been donated.

Now, nearly two years later? Private contributions to Tacoma’s immigrant defense fund have totaled a whopping $8,642.40.

Since August of 2018, only four donations, or $323 has trickled in.

Looking at the numbers, Mok — who was speaking for himself and not necessarily representing the views of the commission he chairs — is far from impressed. While creating the fund was a step in the right direction, he says, he believes the city isn’t “really fully committing the resources to make sure people have legal representation or fulfilling that commitment.”

“I think that’s where the immigrant defense fund kind of fell short,” he says.

Falling short, in this case, has significant implications. Unlike criminal court, immigration proceedings are civil, meaning there’s no constitutional obligation to provide legal counsel.

In practice, that means that individuals facing deportation — where the stakes could hardly be higher — often go it alone. Studies have shown that access to a lawyer during these proceedings greatly improves a person’s chance of receiving a fair hearing and of avoiding deportation.

Regardless of where you stand on the national immigration debate, receiving a fair hearing — and making sure current immigration law is administered justly — should be something everyone can support.

“It can really sort of shift, dramatically, the future of folks, and give them a chance to get back to their families and back to contributing in the community,” says Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Tacoma office.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project currently contracts with the city, meaning it puts to use the limited immigrant defense funds the city has budgeted. Warden-Hertz says that means his organization has the ability to screen people who lived in Tacoma prior to being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but it still has to pick and choose the cases it pursues.

“It’s not enough, it doesn’t cover everyone,” Warden-Hertz says. “Certainly I think the city should consider increasing funding so that more Tacomans can access support.”

Compared to other places across the country, Warden-Hertz describes Tacoma’s current financial commitment to immigrant defense as “relatively low.”

That, too, might be putting it kindly.

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Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.