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On the same day this week, Santa Ana officials could take two big steps toward a more accessible and protective city government for undocumented residents who have come to call the city home. 

Known to be one of the country’s densest metropolitan centers, Santa Ana is a predominantly Latino city in the heart of Orange County, a region where hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants are believed to live. 

On Tuesday, City Council members will finalize a move they made earlier this month to remove barriers for undocumented residents to serve on citywide commissions and boards, removing the requirement that members of such panels be a “qualified elector,” meaning eligible to vote.

Under federal law, undocumented people in the U.S. cannot vote in elections.

Instead, Santa Ana’s proposed amendments to its commission membership policies will simply require that members be residents of the city.

Previously, only two appointed panels in the city didn’t restrict membership based on the “qualified elector” requirement. 

One of them, the Measure X Committee — which tracks the city’s use of increased sales tax money — saw the city’s first undocumented resident appointed last year, Carlos Perea. 

Perea, an immigrants’ rights advocate, told Voice of OC earlier this month that he welcomed the city’s move, saying any barrier based on citizenship — in a city where the population is largely undocumented — “to participate meaningfully in the democratic process should be struck down.”

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, City Council members are set to make a larger commitment toward funding legal defense services for undocumented residents facing deportation. 

On the table is a two-year agreement with the Immigrant Defenders Law Center For Immigration Legal Defense Services — known as ImmDef — for which the city would spend a total of $400,000. 

It’s a greater monetary commitment to the program than city officials have made in the past. The effort began in 2017, when the city partnered with ImmDef and the Vera Institute of Justice and the Santa Ana Deportation Defense Fund was born.

Over the years, the city has increased the amount of money it has committed to these services, which staff say is meant to be accessible to all residents facing deportation proceedings. 

However, last year the City Council was criticized for initially proposing to spend $100,000 less than what they spent the previous year to support deportation defense services.

At the same time, officials proposed millions in increased police spending during a tense city budget cycle where some called for shelling out less for law enforcement and increased investment on direct services to the city’s residents vulnerable to deportations.

Responding to the criticism, council members in July ultimately opted to restore the deportation defense fund’s spending levels, approving an additional $100,000 toward the program than proposed that year, for a total of $200,000.

[Read: Santa Ana Council Increases Police Spending but Reallocates Some Money After Protests]

Under the proposed agreement, ImmDef would serve 24 new Santa Ana clients over a two-year period. If there’s additional capacity, ImmDef could take more cases, staff said in a report attached to the agenda scheduling the discussion Tuesday night.

City staff say there are still 33 cases open from the prior agreement year and that the 24 new cases “will include both detained and non-detained cases, depending upon community need.” 

How many people the program can actually serve will depend on several factors, like the number of people with no relief available or seeking voluntary departure, as well as the number of those whose cases proceed to a trial while detained versus those released on bond, among other factors.

For cases that require representation beyond the city’s contractual commitment term, staff say ImmDef has “committed to continue their representation of those clients beyond the agreement term and until final adjudication.”

Included in the budget for the program is $20,000 for litigation costs, such as mental health and country condition experts, which staff say “will provide much needed support on our cases and possibly improve the outcomes.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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