Harris County commissioners voted Tuesday to approve a resolution to create an immigration legal services fund.
The vote was 3-2, along party lines. The resolution, proposed by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, allocates an estimated $500,000 in its first year to help people facing deportation who can’t afford a lawyer. The funds would go toward helping improve due process in the federal immigration system, Hidalgo said.
“The goal is to provide attorneys for immigrants to be able to pursue their case. If it turns out their case has no merit, and they’re not to stay, that’s fine. But they should have a shot at a fair process and they can’t possibly navigate the system, complicated confusing system, without the legal support,” Hidalgo said.
Dallas, Austin and San Antonio have similar city-funded programs in place, but this would be the first county-funded effort in the state and the first program in Greater Houston.
A study by the Vera Institute of Justice found detained immigrants who have a lawyer are 10.5 times more likely to win their case than those without representation.
The report also found that when immigration cases involved women with children, having legal representation improved their odds of winning 14 times.
The county’s next steps are to run a request for proposals from nonprofits likely already working in immigration legal defense, according to the Harris County Judge’s office.
Harris County spends $21 million annually to fund its public defenders office. A large portion of that budget staffs 88 public defenders.
The goal for the defense fund is to create an ongoing program, that would receive annual funding from county budget. However, Tuesday’s resolution only accounts for the first year of the program.
A coalition of immigrant groups in the area, like the ACLU, Tahirih Justice Center and United We Dream, support the creation of the legal fund.
But some condemned Hidalgo’s plan. Representatives from The Remembrance Project, a group that says it was “founded to educate the general public about the loss of American lives and legal residents at the hands of illegal aliens,” said the government should not spend taxpayer dollars on such a project.
“The Harris County taxpayer should not foot the bill and hold the bag for those who cross the border illegally,” said Maria Espinoza, national director of The Remembrance Project. “You talk about separating families? American families are permanently being separated.”
Still others, like Carlos Campos, a sociology student at the University of Houston, sat in on the meeting in support of the legal defense fund, and gave testimony on its behalf.
“We are poor people. We are fearful people,” Campos said. “Is this society we want? Is it justice to expect poor and working people to expend $10,000 in lawyer’s [fees]?”