Santa Ana Plans Legal Defense Fund for Undocumented Immigrants Facing Deportation

Orange County’s second-largest city would pay for attorneys to represent undocumented residents facing deportation, under a preliminary plan endorsed by council members early Wednesday.

In a unanimous 7-0 vote, the Santa Ana City Council directed city staff to collaborate with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and UC Irvine School of Law to prepare a coordinated effort to provide legal representation to Santa Ana residents who are at risk of deportation but can’t afford an attorney.

Supporters called it an important step to prevent families from being torn apart in the heavily-immigrant city, as President Trump expands federal agents’ priorities for deportation to include any unauthorized immigrant who has been accused of any crime.

Trump had talked about focusing on hardened criminals, but “now they’re going to go after anybody who has a [criminal] charge,” said Councilman Vicente Sarmiento, who introduced the measure after being approached by activists. “In the world of due process, that just means you have to be accused of something, and the accusation could be very, very unfounded. That’s scary.”

The only public concerns came from two councilmen, Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas, who raised issues like legal liability and whether taxpayers will be paying to represent violent criminals. After further discussion, both ended up voting for the directive.

If adopted, as appears likely based on council members’ comments, Santa Ana would be joining large cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. that have created similar funds for undocumented immigrants – and set up a likely showdown with the federal government.

Santa Ana has one of the largest immigrant populations, as a share of its overall residents, of any city its size in the United States. Nearly half the population was born in another country and about 40 percent of adult residents are non-citizens.

The proposal drew 18 public speakers from organizations like the ACLU, UC Irvine School of Law, Western State College of Law, the Orange County Labor Federation, and Resilience OC, all in support of the proposal and offering to help.

“Today it is a bedrock principal of our justice system that before imposing criminal incarceration we will provide anyone who cannot afford an attorney” with a trained advocate, said Annie Lai, a law professor at UC Irvine, who like several other speakers stayed until after midnight in order to address the council.

Advocates said thousands of U.S. citizen children in Santa Ana are at risk of losing one or both of their parents to deportation, which they said would traumatize the children and put many at risk of being put into foster care.

Immigrants in deportation proceedings are at a severe disadvantage if they don’t have representation, and are five times more likely to succeed in their case if represented by an attorney, said an ACLU representative.

“The city needs to act. We can’t just sit silent” and sit by while members of our immigrant community “are under attack,” said Hugo Salazar, a policy analyst with the labor federation.

There were no public speakers against the effort. Critics elsewhere have viewed such moves as protecting people who violated federal law.

The effort did draw some concern from Solorio and Villegas.

Villegas said he was worried about the city’s costs for the overall program and, whether the city would face legal liability if a case doesn’t go a client’s way. He ended up voting for the measure after Sarmiento responded that any city costs would be up to the council at a future meeting, and said the city’s attorneys would do no legal representation. Instead, immigrants would be represented by lawyers from outside groups.

Solorio said he wanted the city to have control over who gets represented, so that taxpayers aren’t covering the legal costs of “murderers, rapists, [and] child molesters.” An audience member then shouted that Solorio sounded “like Donald Trump.”

Solorio suggested the city prioritize representing veterans and students, known by pro-immigration activists as “dreamers.”

He also opposed working with two activist groups Sarmiento identified in his original proposal, saying he found “profanity” on at least one of their Facebook pages and they oppose other city policies. But Solorio also ended up supporting the plan directing staff to study Sarmiento’s measure further, after Sarmiento removed the activist groups’ names from the directive while encouraging staff to work with any group that wants to collaborate.

Solorio also told city staff to set priorities for who the city would legally represent, like veterans, “dreamers,” and nonviolent offenders, and bring those recommendations back to the council.

Mayor Miguel Pulido, who has taken an anti-illegal immigration stance in the past, also supported the effort.

Pulido pointed to the city of L.A. as a model for using the city payments to also bring in private sector dollars. He said he hoped people in Orange County would also be willing to provide private money toward the fund.

Staff were directed to study the legal, financial and logistical issues of the legal defense fund and report back to the council with recommendations for action. The next council meeting is scheduled for March 7.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.