On January 30, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a "Welcoming City" resolution pledging the city's support to undocumented immigrants. Part of that resolution called for a plan to create a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants swept up in increasing immigration raids on Seattle and King County.
Today, Seattle City Council members Lorena González and Tim Burgess—backed by Mayor Ed Murray—released more details about that plan, which will go to a committee vote on April 12.
The proposed policy would create a $1 million legal defense fund, paid for by existing tax revenue sources and allocated from the city's general subfund. That legal defense fund would then work like a grant: Seattle's Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs would facilitate a competitive bidding process for the money and distribute it to community based organizations that want to hire immigration attorneys and legal staff.
“With this Legal Defense Fund, we stand hand-in-hand with our immigrant and refugee communities as they fight to remain with their families and in their homes," Council Member Lorena González, who sponsored the original Welcoming City resolution, said in a statement. "Each of our friends, neighbors, and family members who go to immigration court deserve to be accompanied by someone who understands their case.”
Unlike defendants in other court systems, undocumented immigrants arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) do not have a right to an attorney in immigration court, and many cannot afford to hire private attorneys. An estimated 92 percent of people tried in Tacoma's immigration court—which hears cases for people detained at the Northwest Detention Center—do not have legal representation.
"I certainly applaud Council Member González in pushing this forward," Tim Warden-Hertz, director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project's Tacoma office, said. "The results are pretty dramatic when folks are given the chance to have an attorney."
Warden-Hertz cited successes of similar programs created in New York City and San Francisco. According to a national study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review in 2015, a detainee's chance of being released without counsel was just three percent. With counsel, the chances of being released increased more than ten-fold.
Warden-Hertz estimates that the number of immigration raids in the Seattle area has roughly doubled after President Trump took office. One of those raids, which swept up 19 people in King County, took place over the last weekend and concluded on Monday.
In a press release on the most recent immigration raids, ICE announced that its officers had arrested 84 people in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington. According to ICE, 24 of those arrested didn't have any criminal history at all. Among the 60 who did have prior criminal convictions were a few people with histories of committing sexual assault. But many more of the criminal histories involved primarily DUI and drug offenses, including one conviction for "marijuana possession."