The recommendation comes seven months after the task force was created and at a time of heightened awareness over federal immigration policy.
A task force created to focus on the needs of immigrants and refugees in Tacoma has recommended the City Council spend $440,000 per year to establish a legal-defense fund for Tacoma residents detained at the Northwest Detention Center.
The money would pay for two attorneys and two paralegals who would represent people facing deportation, said Amanda Diaz, a member of the task force and student president at the University of Puget Sound. Another option would be to spend half that money for one lawyer and paralegal to provide some measure of legal representation to detained people, Diaz said.
The recommendation comes seven months after the task force was created and at a time of heightened awareness over federal immigration policy. Stepped-up deportation efforts that have followed President Donald Trump’s inauguration have created emotional and financial strain for many Tacoma families, she said.
Unlike in criminal cases where defendants are represented by a publicly funded attorney if they can’t afford one, people facing deportation are not guaranteed a lawyer, according to the American Immigration Council. This year, the city of Seattle committed $1 million to paying for legal defense for immigrants and refugees, and officials there said they would seek ways to continue that funding in the future.
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Members of a Tacoma City Council committee who received the task force’s recommendation this month were receptive to the idea but not ready to implement it.
They requested more information from the task force and city staff about how the money would be spent.
“This is coming to us a little less fleshed out than we normally have policies coming to us. Normally we have a lot more of these questions answered,” Councilman Marty Campbell said. “I think we should do this, but first let’s explore it and figure out how.”
An attorney for the Tacoma office of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project told members of the council’s Community Vitality and Safety Committee that the need for legal representation for detainees at the Northwest Detention Center is pressing.
Having access to a lawyer throughout the legal process would improve their chances of not being deported and keep their families intact, attorney Tim Warden-Hertz said.
Each year, 50 to 100 Tacoma residents are detained at the Northwest Detention Center, he said.
“Enforcement has changed — enforcement year over year has increased 40 percent over last year for people in the Northwest, for people in our area,” Warden-Hertz said. “That’s what has changed and that’s what this administration has meant for families in Tacoma — it’s meant more families being torn apart. That’s why I think this feels so important right now.”
Diaz said there are other downsides to increased deportation efforts.
“There has been a decrease in reporting crimes by immigrants for fear of (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids. There have been parents scared to drop off their kids at school for fear of ICE involvement in government buildings,” she said. “Various members of the task force have identified families left homeless because the main breadwinner is being detained at the Northwest Detention Center. Children are entering the foster-care system because one or both of their parents are detained.”
Most members of the Vitality and Safety committee agreed there is a need for a legal-defense fund for immigrants, but they also said there are needs for other corners of Tacoma’s population, such as those facing eviction proceedings.
Task-force members also recommended that the city create a standing commission on immigration and refugee affairs that would deal with issues unique to that community.
They also asked the City Council to take immediate steps to provide equitable language access for a variety of languages across all city services. Access to language and translation services was identified last year as a major barrier for Latino residents working to integrate into Tacoma life, council members pointed out.