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Santa Ana Joins Coalition of Jurisdictions That Fund Legal Counsel for Immigrants Facing Deportation

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Santa Ana and two Northern California jurisdictions are among a nationwide group of cities and counties that will use public funds to pay the legal fees of immigrants at risk of being deported, the Vera Institute of Justice announced Thursday.

Correctional Supervisor Ed Martinez of the Santa Ana Police Department watches over immigrant detainees at the Santa Ana Jail. (Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)

Correctional Supervisor Ed Martinez of the Santa Ana Police Department watches over immigrant detainees at the Santa Ana Jail. (Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times)

The New York-based nonprofit that studies and advocates change in the criminal justice system is spearheading the coalition, known as the Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Cities Network, which counts 11 members so far.

In addition to Santa Ana, two Northern California jurisdictions — Sacramento and Alameda County, which includes Oakland — are members of the group, along with Chicago, Austin, San Antonio, Atlanta, Baltimore, Columbus, Wisconsin’s Dane County and Prince George’s County in Maryland.

Each city or county has already dedicated funds to provide free legal counsel to those facing deportation; in return, the Vera Institute used its own money to match the public expenditures, the organization said.

“Immigration is part of our nation’s past, present, and future, and our communities will find more opportunities to grow and thrive when we recognize and embrace this fact,” Vera’s president, Nicholas Turner, said in a statement. “That means that all residents must see their justice systems—from our law enforcement to our courts—as delivering on our country’s promise of fairness.”

The jurisdictions involved were selected following an application process, the nonprofit said.

It was unclear whether money from a $65,000 immigrant legal defense fund Santa Ana lawmakers narrowly approved in July was part of the city’s agreement with Vera.

In contrast to criminal cases, immigrants are not generally granted a public defender during deportation proceedings, and the defendants can seldom afford the costs on the own.

Vera also found, in a separate study released this week, that covering the cost of legal counsel during removal proceedings greatly increased the likelihoods that those people would win their cases and be able to return to their families.

While the SAFE Cities coalition may be the first of its kind in pooling resources across several jurisdictions to saddle the cost, several cities, counties and even a few states have made similar moves to allocate public funds toward immigrant defense.

Los Angeles County last December set up the L.A. Justice Fund, while the California state budget passed this year dedicates $15 million to deportation counsel.

San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and New York — both the city and state — have similar programs.

Santa Ana appears to be the first Orange County jurisdiction to publicly fund legal counsel for immigrants, however.

Such moves have been met with criticism by some, and in Los Angeles there has been heated debate as to whether those with violent criminal convictions should benefit from the services.