Sarmiento: Why Santa Ana’s Deportation Defense Legal Fund Should Be Celebrated

In the face of a Trump administration that continues to demonize immigrants and devalue their contributions, Santa Ana should be proud of its national leadership in charting a different course.

Santa Ana’s pioneering creation of a legal defense fund for local immigrants facing potential deportation is a core part of our commitment to forge a new and inclusive Orange County. Given its importance and successes, our community’s continued efforts to ensure a fair day in court for all should be celebrated as an important way we are keeping Santa Ana safe, inclusive, and economically vibrant.

Immigrants are an essential part of Santa Ana’s community fabric and economic vitality, but many of our immigrant friends and neighbors feel under threat in this current political climate. While the principles of due process and fairness are cornerstones of our justice system, there is no constitutional guarantee to court-appointed legal representation in immigration court. Yet, having legal representation can have a significant impact for immigrants facing potential deportation. Individuals who are represented in their proceedings are ten times more likely to win their immigration case. Of course, the assistance of legal counsel does not guarantee a favorable result, but it does ensure a more fair and equitable process.

Beyond the undocumented population, any non-citizen, including green-card holders who have lived in the country for decades, can be targeted for deportation. If an immigrant member of our community has a legal avenue to remain in the United States, we don’t want a lack of a lawyer to be the only thing preventing them from remaining with their families and contributing to our community. Our local legal defense work, alongside other pro-immigrant policies, represent a real way our city can help protect the rights of all Santa Ana residents, keep more families together, and maintain a safe and strong community.

Santa Ana should be proud to be a national leader in this space, as one of the first dozen cities and counties across the country to be part of Vera Institute of Justice’s SAFE (Safety and Fairness for Everyone) Network of communities dedicated to the goal of publicly-funded universal representation. In light of the importance and proven successes of the legal defense fund, the Santa Ana City Council recently sustained and expanded the funding for this work for the next year.

Here’s why that news should be celebrated. We know that our model of legal defense for immigrants works, providing representation to longtime Santa Ana residents – on average, clients served by the legal defense program in Santa Ana during its first year have lived in the United States for nearly a decade. Many clients are parents, responsible for supporting themselves and their families: in its first year of operation, SAFE represented the parents of 31 different minor children in our community, including many U.S. citizens. With family separation in the news along our border, we are reminded that such separations are also taking place in communities across the country – and why legal representation matters as a line of defense.

Our legal defense program is also popular with the community – a 2018 poll found that two-thirds of Santa Ana voters, 64.5 percent, supported or strongly supported publicly-funded legal representation for everyone who could not afford an attorney, including detained immigrants and immigrants facing deportation. But of course, statistics and polling are not as powerful as the local families and community members who can provide real stories about why our legal defense efforts matter so much.

For example, one first-year client served by the legal representation fund was Lisa, a mother of five U.S. Citizen children who has lived in the US for over 25 years and has long-standing ties to Santa Ana. Through her attorneys accessed through the Santa Ana legal defense fund, Lisa’s history as a domestic abuse victim and underlying mental health struggles stemming from the abuse were central to her attorneys successfully obtaining a low bond and ultimately winning her case. Lisa is now back with her family and community in Santa Ana and receiving needed domestic violence services.

Santa Ana’s legal representation program helps to build and maintain the type of safe, vibrant, and inclusive community in which we all want to live. We all should celebrate its demonstrated impact and be proud of our national leadership as we scale up the legal defense efforts to serve more residents in the coming years.

Councilmember Vicente Sarmiento serves on the Santa Ana City Council

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org