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Should LA County fund legal help for undocumented immigrants?

4th district Supervisor candidate Janice Hahn speaks Tuesday evening at her campaign's election watch party. Hahn was speaking on behalf of Isadore Hall, whose watch party was held in the room next door at Port O' Call in San Pedro.
Stuart Palley for KPCC
Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn is one of two supervisors proposing to help fund legal services for unauthorized immigrants facing deportation.

Los Angeles County supervisors are expected to consider next week whether to set aside an initial $1 million to help cover legal services for unauthorized immigrants facing deportation.

The proposal from supervisors Janice Hahn and Hilda Solis would direct the county to earmark the funds for the current fiscal year to help immigrants living in the county without authorization. By some estimates, they number more than 800,000

Nonprofit legal providers that serve immigrant clients would administer the program, according to Hahn's office. More funds would be sought next year.

The move to fund immigrant legal assistance comes as California state and local officials prepare to oppose President-elect Donald Trump's pledge to deport millions of immigrants living in the country illegally. 

Hahn spokeswoman Liz Odendahl said the idea is to set up the legal fund with $1 million in the first year, then obtain matching funds from public or private donors. The county's contribution could go up to $2 million for fiscal year 2017-2018 if the amount is matched, Odendahl said.

“Many immigrants who are facing deportation have a legal avenue to stay in this country, but they are not aware of it because they don’t have legal representation,” Hahn told KPCC.

If the proposal from the supervisors passes, the county would identify where in the county's budget the needed funds would come from, according to Hahn's office.

The county is also calling on the state to broaden its funding for immigrants' legal services. In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown authorized about $3 million annually for nonprofit legal services providers to represent unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

There is also state funding available to assist young immigrants applying for temporary protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and legal residents seeking U.S. citizenship.

A bill introduced earlier this month by state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) seeks to expand that funding to adults facing deportation.

The push for taxpayer-funded legal representation will likely trigger opposition from conservative groups wanting to curb illegal immigration.

State and local governments seeking to provide undocumented immigrants with legal help could be exposing themselves to litigation, said John Eastman, a professor of constitutional law at Chapman University in Orange.

Eastman, a conservative scholar, cites the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Arizona v. United States, which overturned most components of a controversial Arizona state anti-illegal immigration law known as SB 1070.

"The Supreme Court was pretty clear that immigration policy is the exclusive preserve of the federal government," Eastman said. "What L.A. County is proposing to do here is not to help enforce immigration laws, but to put themselves adverse to the enforcement of immigration laws — and helping to fund the prevention of enforcement of immigration laws."

If the county uses public funds, "any taxpayer could sue the county to challenge the deployment of those funds in a way that might well be illegal," he said.

Currently, those without legal residency who can't afford a private lawyer have little recourse in immigration court, said Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California-Davis School of Law. Immigrants placed in detention receive names of pro-bono legal services providers, but their ability to help is limited.

"Many are public-interest organizations that are regularly low-funded [and] overworked, and can't take all the cases that come in the door," Johnson said.

Unlike in criminal matters for which defendants must be provided representation, civil immigration proceedings do not trigger mandated legal help.

As a result, "many undocumented immigrants, as well as many legal immigrants, appear in removal proceedings without counsel," Johnson said. Studies show immigrants without representation stand a far greater chance of losing their cases and being deported. 

In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued the federal government in hopes of forcing the government to provide counsel for unaccompanied immigrant minors. The case is pending a rehearing in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

L.A. County would not be alone if it sought to fund legal services for immigrants facing deportation. New York City has such a program and, earlier this month, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a $1 million "legal protection fund" to benefit immigrants who are fighting deportation.

A million dollars in L.A. County would allow legal service nonprofits to beef up their ranks somewhat and take on "hundreds of cases, not thousands," according to Johnson.

"I can’t say it's going to cure the problem, but it's certainly going to help," he said.