Ramsey County and St. Paul are joining forces to create an immigrant legal defense program, citing community need and suffering as a result of more aggressive enforcement under the Trump administration.
County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved creation of the fund in partnership with the city, pledging $100,000 toward the program. Meanwhile, the City Council will consider contributing $50,000 at its meeting Wednesday.
Federal policies under President Donald Trump "are resulting in uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and family disruption that impact the well-being, prosperity, and overall opportunity of residents, businesses, and families in Ramsey County," according to a report drafted by county staffers.
The county and city join a growing number of local governments, including Hennepin County, that are investing in immigration defense.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi announced earlier this month that he had hired an immigration attorney to advise prosecutors on how convictions can affect a defendant's legal status.
"Everybody in this county is a resident — it doesn't matter what your legal status is," said Board Chairman Jim McDonough in an interview Tuesday. "We have a role and responsibility to help everybody in this community."
St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said that both the city and county were looking for ways to support immigration services, "so it seemed natural for us to come together and discuss ways to partner on that."
Olson added that St. Paul is in the process of hiring a full-time immigration support services attorney who will advise city officials on immigration issues and be the point person for the collaboration with the county.
Last spring, the Hennepin County Board voted 4-3 to allocate $275,000 to a new immigrant defense fund.
"It's always nice to have company. I am really glad Ramsey County is going to join us in this work," said Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene, who strongly advocated for the new fund. "The dollars will change lives and it's also about the values that Hennepin County wants to communicate."
Deportations during the Obama administration reached record numbers, though most of the people sent back were picked up within 100 miles of the border. The Trump administration has expedited deportation cases and expanded the circle of undocumented immigrants who can be deported to include those guilty of minor crimes or accused of criminal activity. It also has canceled protective status for immigrants who came to the United States to escape national emergencies in their home countries.
Minnesota and four surrounding states have seen removals of undocumented or criminal immigrants by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents nearly double in two years' time, to 3,423 in 2018.
Some are critical of counties funding immigration defense. Last spring, Hennepin County Board Chairwoman Jan Callison said that while she disagrees with the Trump administration's immigration policies, she doesn't think the county should wade into a complicated and highly politicized federal issue.
"Law enforcement is the most fundamental responsibility of local government. Why should taxpayers be expected to foot the bill for people who have broken our laws?" said John Hinderaker, president of the Twin Cities-based Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank.
An outcry from residents inspired Ramsey County officials to act, said Elizabeth Tolzmann, the county's director of policy and planning.
"The community had been meeting with leaders and staff for the past year saying this is a huge need," she said. "The community is suffering."
At those meetings, county staffers have heard firsthand stories, she said.
"People tell us, 'My partner or spouse is in removal proceedings and it's affecting our family,' " Tolzmann said. "A lot of families are going even further underground and not accessing county services. Some people have to move out of fear."
Unlike criminal court proceedings, there is no legal right to counsel in immigration court. About one-third of immigrants nationwide were represented by attorneys in 2017, according to New York-based nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.
Immigrants detained in Minnesota fare better, with slightly more than 60 percent having attorneys, according to federal data cited by Ramsey County.
Ramsey County and St. Paul officials have not yet figured out how they will spend the new fund, but right now they are seeking an additional $100,000 matching grant from the Vera Institute Tolzmann said.
Last fall, Hennepin County selected three nonprofits to provide legal services for immigrants. Twice a month, lawyers meet with immigrants detained at the Sherburne County jail in Elk River, which has a contract with federal authorities, and provide information and advice. They now represent about 20 immigrants.
"This has really expanded our capacity to take on cases," said Anne Carlson, an attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. "Most people are really grateful to just talk to an attorney."
But they cannot represent everyone in need, Carlson said. "Right now, the demand greatly outstrips the supply of free attorneys," she said.
Nonprofit community groups, including Jewish Community Action, have urged the counties to do more and have set up meetings between community leaders and residents to illuminate the impact of increased immigration enforcement.
"There is a whole lot local government can do, and one of those things is providing legal defense for immigrants," said Jacob Kraus, a Jewish Community Action organizer.