Hennepin County residents facing deportation could soon get legal help from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid if they can't afford an attorney.
A $275,000 contract with the county, being considered Tuesday, would link the nonprofit's attorneys with residents undergoing deportation proceedings in immigration court. A portion of the contract — $25,000 — would go toward creating materials in different languages that inform foreign-born inmates of their rights when they are booked into county jail.
"At the heart of this is due process," said Commissioner Marion Greene, who spearheaded the idea for the legal defense fund. "This is essentially the possibility of a public defender for civil immigration cases."
The County Board approved the fund in December on a divided vote and sought partners to handle the legal services. If it finalizes the contract later this month, Hennepin County would be one of the first in the Midwest to join a growing movement to provide representation for people in immigration court.
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid was chosen "because they demonstrated excellent collaboration with other community based organizations, as well as expertise and credentialing in immigration law," according to a board memo. The nonprofit serves 20 counties in central Minnesota, specializing in housing, disability, domestic violence and other topics in addition to immigration.
It would also partner with the Advocates for Human Rights and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, which helped craft the idea for the fund. The three organizations are members of the Minnesota Detention Project, which aims to match immigration detainees with volunteer attorneys.
"This is something that is really needed in the community," Greene said. "To be at the cusp of the actual investment is very exciting."
Representatives for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid did not respond to requests for comment. The contract would start Sept. 1 and last through 2019.
When the board created the legal defense fund, some commissioners questioned whether the county should get involved in the issue.
On Monday, Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who is also a Republican Party candidate for governor, said he still doesn't approve.
"We've created a new spending program to give free lawyers to illegal immigrants, and that is messed up," he said. "I don't support it."
About 35,000 people are estimated to live in Hennepin County without legal status. More than 950 people have been ordered for removal in Minnesota in fiscal year 2018, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Michele McKenzie, the deputy director of the Advocates for Human Rights, said immigrants who would otherwise "languish behind bars" need representation. Having an attorney, she said, greatly increases the chance that they are able to stay in the country.
"This is really groundbreaking," McKenzie said. "It is extraordinarily farsighted and I think it will make our community stronger and more stable."
Once the contract is awarded, the county could be eligible for an additional $100,000 from the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that has tracked similar funds across the country, Greene said.
The legal defense fund idea continues to gain momentum elsewhere.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter recently urged the City Council to allocate $100,000 to start the city's own legal defense fund for immigrants.
"St. Paul cannot and will not be a city that does nothing while our neighbors are targeted," he said during his budget address last week.