San Francisco leaders on Thursday stalled legislation that would fund a team of attorneys working out of the Public Defender’s office who are specialized in defending detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings.
The legislation, introduced by Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, would allow the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office to create 13 new positions, including seven attorneys and six support staff, with a total budget of $418,105 this year. An additional $2 million would be allocated to the legal defense team to create 15 more positions in the coming year.
A rally and a press conference in support of the legislation were held prior to the hearing of the Budget and Finance Committee at City Hall, synchronizing with a national strike that saw restaurants and other businesses shut down for the the day in response to President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda.
Still, the three-membered committee moved to continue a vote on the legislation to March 2.
Chelsea Boilard, legislative aide to Fewer, called the hearing’s outcome “disappointing” but added that proponents of the legislation are “hopeful that this is not the end of the conversation.”
Other counties, including Los Angeles and Alameda, support the kind of skilled lawyers that Mayor Ed Lee, citing budgetary problems, has so far refused to underwrite. Those working to protect the local immigrant community from deportations said they are frustrated by the lack of support.
As raids are already underway across the country and more are expected, nonprofits worry that they will be overwhelmed and without the expertise needed to defend immigrants who have been detained.
“We cannot be a sanctuary city without universal representation – it’s an oxymoron,” said Edwin Carmona Cruz, interim development director at La Raza Centro Legal. “We make a statement of solidarity but there are people being deported at high and fast rates.”
Vicky Castro, the director of the same nonprofit added: “We can’t meet the volume as the public defender does…they already have the [system] in place.”
“Nonprofits do great representation but because of the quickness of these proceedings, especially in a criminal context – it takes us longer. We don’t have the resources, the staffing,” said Castro. “We want to be in involved in it but our belief is that it would not benefit our clients.”
Following efforts spearheaded by former Mission Supervisor David Campos, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in December allocated $1.5 million from the city’s budget to community organizations like La Raza Centro Legal that provide legal defense services to immigrants. That added to the $3.8 million in city funding already allocated towards immigration legal defense as part of the annual budget.
The many nonprofits funded by Lee are versed in defending immigrants facing deportation proceedings in San Francisco’s immigration court who are not in jail. Fewer’s legislation would ramp-up legal defense work for those who have already been detained.
The detained population – one expected to increase with raids – is particularly vulnerable to deportation, said Public Defender and Immigration Attorney Francisco Ugarte.
Detained cases are significantly more complicated, and defense includes a firm knowledge of both criminal and immigration law, said Ugarte.
Ugarte said his office would be taking on cases in which immigrants are detained on immigration violations, and can be either undocumented or legal permanent residents with minor or serious criminal convictions. The latter make up a “very small minority” of the caseload, said Ugarte.
“In this country there is a constitution that provide procedural due process protection to all people,” said Ugarte. “That doesn’t mean people are going free who shouldn’t.”
Ugarte said it is easier to deport someone who has been detained “because they tend to waive their own rights and give up on their case.”
To defend them, he added, requires a “very high level specialization…speedy work and infrastructure in place with culture of understanding high-stake proceedings where people are detained.”
The city faces a $119 million budget deficit in the next fiscal year, and the mayor has resisted this additional funding to the Public Defender’s Office despite a strong sentiment among local nonprofits that this kind of skilled defense team is needed. .
“Nonprofits in San Francisco do not have the capacity to take on the heavy detained caseload we are proposing to handle – arguably they could try to staff up, but it would be so much easier to do it at the public defenders, which would maximize efficiency,” said Ugarte.
In December, Deirdre Hussey, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office wrote in an email to Mission Local that “The administration supports funding community-based organizations, who are already doing this work and have track-record of success, to expand their services to deal with the current and anticipated needs.”
Other than pointing to the budget, the mayor’s office has not fully explained why it is resistant to funding a team at the Public Defender’s office.