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LA County supervisors weighing who should get immigrant legal defense help

Phal Sok, 35, was among those who showed up Tuesday to protest a motion before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors that would place limits on which immigrants can access a legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation, being set up partly with county funds. The motion, which was not voted on, would have excluded immigrants like Sok, who said he was convicted of armed robbery in his teens but is no longer a threat. He is facing deportation.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Phal Sok, 35, was among those who protested Tuesday against a proposal before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to place limits on which immigrants can get legal help to fight deportation.

Los Angeles County supervisors are considering which immigrants should receive help from a new multimillion-dollar legal defense fund being created to fight deportation. 

Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn proposed immigrants receive the legal help, but wanted to exclude immigrants convicted of violent felonies.

In December, county officials voted to contribute an initial $1 million and eventually up to $3 million toward  the L.A. Justice Fund. The county’s contribution would be combined with city and philanthropic money to create a $10 million resource for immigrants' legal defense. The money would be disbursed to selected legal aid providers.

The proposal from Solis and Hahn would have placed limits on who could apply for the fund, excluding immigrants with violent felony convictions, according to Solis' office.

The exclusion didn't sit well with immigrant advocates, who urged county officials to change their minds ahead of the supervisors meeting. On Tuesday morning, dozens of advocates and immigrants gathered at the county building downtown to protest the idea of limiting those who might get the legal defense help.

One was Phal Sok, 35, who arrived with his family from Cambodian as a refugee when he was a toddler. He said he was convicted of armed robbery while in his teens and served a lengthy sentence. Now he's representing himself in deportation proceedings and would like to get help from the legal fund.

Sok said he's not a threat to society. He said if those with violent felonies are excluded from seeking help from the fund, “because of my convictions, now that I’m out, I have to just pursue this on my own ... ," he said. 

On Monday, Solis told KPCC that prioritizing who gets help from the fund would make the best use of limited resources. 

"We're trying to be very constructive, and always mindful about how to direct any kind of county funding, and making it count," Solis said.

She said philanthropies will eventually contribute most of the money for the legal defense fund.

Los Angeles city officials are still working on contributing their share of the funding, according to Mayor Eric Garcetti's office.

In New York, legislators recently dedicated $4 million in grants to help immigrants facing deportation pay for their legal costs. Critics of the idea have questioned whether it is legal for state and local governments to use taxpayer money help immigrants defend against removal from the country.

"It's indisputable that federal funds may not be used to pay for lawyers for people in immigration proceedings," said Mark Krikorian with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank that advocates for stricter immigration policies. "It hasn't been litigated whether state or local funds are allowed to be spent [for that purpose]."  

Jessie Gomez, a spokeswoman for Solis, said the proposal to limit who gets help from the fund has been kicked back to her office where it could be revised.

The supervisors passed two other immigration-related measures on Tuesday. One aims to establish a county list of "sensitive locations" where federal immigration enforcement would not be welcome. 

Immigrant agents already have a list of sensitive sites where they are advised not to arrest people subject to deportation. These include school campuses, hospitals and places of worship. 

Under the supervisors approved measure, the county counsel and chief executive officer will report back to the board with a proposed list of locations where county services are provided and immigration enforcement would be discouraged.

"They'll come back in 45 days and report to us on what the best strategy is to establish a countywide policy," Solis said.

She said the county's sensitive areas list could include its parks, libraries, and service locations like health clinics. If the federal government impedes the county's ability to provide services, "that can set the stage with where we go with legal action," she said. 

The county's list could also include courthouses, where immigration agents have made arrests and staked out immigrants. That action prompted California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to send a letter to federal officials last month asking they end "stalking" by immigrant agents in court buildings.

Krikorian said local officials can't tell federal officials where they can and can't enforce immigration laws. "They have every legal right to go into a church or a school and arrest somebody," he said. 

The board also voted to expand an countywide task force charged with developing strategies to protect immigrants.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, a Republican representing the board's 5th District, cast the sole dissenting vote on both immigration measures.

In an emailed statement, Barger said she voted no on the sensitive locations measure "based on strong concerns about possible fiscal consequences of non-cooperation by the county with federal law enforcement authorities." 

The Trump administration has threatened to pull federal funding from local governments that don't comply with federal immigration enforcement.