Hennepin County residents fighting their deportations are in line to get some financial help from the county.

A divided County Board backed a $250,000 legal defense fund in December, making Hennepin County one of the first Midwestern jurisdictions among a growing roster of cities and counties that started chipping in for immigration court costs as the Trump administration ramped up enforcement. Now the county is ironing out the details on the controversial pilot project — all while several other local jurisdictions watch closely and weigh similar initiatives.

To beef up its own investment with private dollars, Hennepin is considering joining a national network led by a New York-based nonprofit that calls on cities and counties to make funds open to all affected residents, regardless of their criminal records.

"I am not here to say, 'You should be able to skirt the law,' " said Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene, who spearheaded the new fund. "This is about due process and fair representation."

Critics such as Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner and Republican gubernatorial contender, oppose using taxpayer dollars on behalf of residents who have broken the country's immigration laws, particularly those with criminal convictions.

A growing network

In Hennepin, immigrant advocacy groups such as Isaiah and the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, as well as nonprofit legal providers such as the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, started pushing for the fund last year as local immigration arrests spiked under the Trump administration.

Activists have criticized the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office for alerting Immigration and Customs Enforcement about newly booked foreign-born inmates and upcoming releases at its jail. They held up the case of Luciano Morales, a janitor and union organizer picked up by ICE outside the jail. Richfield police had arrested Morales during a traffic stop on a warrant issued because he had a pending drunken driving charge when he was previously deported to Guatemala.

After raising $3,000 to bail Morales out of jail, his family couldn't afford the immigration bail or an attorney in immigration court, where there is no right to free counsel. He was deported, despite voicing fears that his union leadership could make him a gang target.

An estimated 35,000 people live in Hennepin County without legal status. Because of an active local pro bono immigration bar, a relatively high percentage of Hennepin residents in deportation proceedings have an attorney — about two-thirds, or more than double the national average, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Proponents of immigrant legal funds point to dramatically different outcomes for those using a lawyer to help them make a case to stay in the United States: A University of Pennsylvania study found they are 10 times more likely to succeed.

Over the past year, more cities and counties have set up such funds, joining efforts such as New York City's 2013 initiative, the nation's first public defender program for immigrants facing deportation. The New York-based nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice has identified at least 17 programs, including in purple and red states such as Wisconsin's Dane County.

"It's not just an East Coast-West Coast, big liberal city kind of movement," said Vera's Annie Chen, "and it's really gained momentum since the Trump election."

In December, Hennepin commissioners voted 4-3 to pass Greene's budget amendment setting aside $250,000 for free legal services for low-income immigrants, with a priority for those taken into ICE custody after leaving the county jail. The board also earmarked $25,000 for materials to inform county jail inmates of their rights.

Johnson said he was troubled that the board backed spending for a contentious program as a budget amendment and with limited debate.

"Expecting taxpayers to provide money for illegal immigrants to fight immigration authorities is wrong," he said.

Jan Callison, the board chairwoman, said she disagrees with the Trump administration's immigration policies and sympathizes with the immigrant community. But she doesn't think the county should wade into a complex, highly politicized federal issue — particularly on behalf of jail inmates, most of whom face felony-level charges.

Some advocates, who had pushed for a $1 million fund in the county's $2.4 billion operating budget, were disappointed the board settled on a more modest amount, said Lars Negstad of Isaiah. But, he said, "We do see it as a big victory, and we hope to build on that."

Who can apply?

Other Minnesota jurisdictions are keeping an eye on Hennepin. In Ramsey County, Commissioner Jim McDonough said he and some of his colleagues are open to the idea of a similar fund in the county's 2020-2021 budget.

"We see more people being detained and deported," he said. "We see the fear and anxiety in the community."

But he said they have questions. Given Ramsey's more limited budget, would an investment in prevention — such as efforts to inform residents of their rights and encourage them to apply for citizenship — make more sense than a legal defense program, given the long, pricey immigration court process? Would it present a conflict to help defend in immigration court residents against whom the county attorney's office is pressing criminal charges?

Last year and again in its 2018 budget, Minneapolis approved $75,000 for a range of services for immigrants, including know-your-rights presentations and training for volunteers to staff an immigration detention hotline. David Rubedor, the city's director of neighborhood and community relations, said a new head of immigrant and refugee services that Minneapolis is about to hire could revisit the idea of a legal-defense fund like Hennepin's.

A joint committee of Rochester and Olmsted County officials will review a proposal by community advocates for a $120,000 immigration legal defense fund in April.

Meanwhile, officials in Hennepin County are preparing a formal request for proposals from immigration legal service providers to administer the new fund. Assistant administrator Mark Thompson said he is researching such programs nationally and hopes to have the request completed in April.

"We're happy to lead the way in Minnesota, but I want to make sure we add value for the taxpayer in the end," he said.

A key question facing the county is whether to set restrictions on who can get help through the program. Los Angeles County, with a $10 million public-private initiative, excludes residents with violent felonies; other funds are open to anyone.

In April, the board will vote on joining the Vera Institute's SAFE Cities Network of jurisdictions that offer legal support to immigrants with taxpayer dollars. That could bring in additional private dollars and help in setting up the initiative and collecting data on its effectiveness.

Johnson said he will push to restrict financial support to people without criminal convictions. But advocates such as Negstad say anyone should be eligible.

"There is a fundamental ethic in our country that people deserve their day in court and deserve representation to navigate that process," he said.

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781