Starting next month, Hennepin County will provide legal representation to residents facing deportation who cannot afford an attorney.
The County Board approved a $275,000 contract with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and two other legal organizations in a split vote Tuesday. The groundbreaking decision makes the county one of the few jurisdictions in the Midwest to represent residents in deportation proceedings.
“I’m really glad to see the county taking this step towards providing due process to these residents,” Commissioner Marion Greene said. “It is just a beginning step ... but I think it’s an important statement about our relationship with immigrant communities.”
Those who voted against the contract said that property tax dollars could be spent differently and that there are better ways to support immigrants here illegally.
“That’s not where I would start with immigration efforts,” Commissioner Mike Opat said.
The contract will start Sept. 1 and run through the end of 2019.
County officials expect attorneys to represent about six to eight cases a month, adding that it could cost about $3,000 to $3,500 per person. All county residents who are income eligible can qualify.
In addition, $25,000 of the contract will go toward placing documents in the county jail informing foreign-born inmates of their legal rights.
Peggy Russell, a managing attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, expressed the importance of having a lawyer in immigration court.
“Many immigrants who are placed in removal proceedings are lawful permanent residents who pay taxes and are at risk of extended detention and separation from their families,” read a statement from Russell. “Studies have shown that immigrants with legal representation are up to 10 times more likely to succeed in establishing a right to stay in the U.S.”
Tuesday’s vote, like the one in December that created the fund, was split 4-3.
County Board Chair Jan Callison echoed some of Opat’s comments, saying they should not spend resources on this at a time when the county is tightening its belt.
“We’re simply making difficult decisions,” she said. “I just don’t think that this is the way we address their needs.”
Commissioners Peter McLaughlin and Debbie Goettel both spoke in favor of the fund, saying it would directly affect families in their districts.
“We can’t call the federal government today for help on immigration issues,” McLaughlin said. “We are stepping in, as a local government ... to provide assistance so that due process is protected.”
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid will partner with Advocates for Human Rights and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. John Keller, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center, said this fund will offer a critical defense for people in deportation cases, which are under civil law.
“This fund creates ... the ability to fully represent people, to win these cases in court,” he said. “That’s life and death for some people.”
Local activists and public defenders have said that federal agents secretly arrest immigrants in courthouses or county buildings such as the Hennepin County Government Center. Representatives for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have declined to provide a number of such arrests.
The County Board on Tuesday directed staff to create a policy asking federal immigration agents to improve their conduct on county property. This could include asking agents to identify themselves to county staff and as they make an arrest.
That policy is expected to come before the board later this year.