Defending Pierce County Immigrants and Refugees

Derek Young
4 min readJun 25, 2019

More than 40 years ago at the end of the Vietnam War, people targeted by the new regime were fleeing for safety — indigenous populations, allies of the US, Christians, and other groups. Many made their way to the United States. After Governor Jerry Brown announced they weren’t welcome in California, Governor Dan Evans stepped forward to welcome them to Washington. Shortly thereafter the victims of the genocide in Cambodia received the message.

Those of us born during those years grew up with the children of these related disasters. Their community became integrated with ours. Today it’s hard to imagine Pierce County without our Southeast Asian friends.

Unfortunately, for some their status here is now in doubt. Renewed focus on deporting immigrants and refugees with even relatively minor infractions in the past have drawn the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I encourage everyone to read Matt Driscoll’s feature story on the subject for more detail.

Our Southeast Asian neighbors aren’t the only group facing this problem. It’s just one example cutting across nationalities.

The Proposal

I have introduced an amendment increasing the Department of Human Services by $100,000 with the following language:

provided that it solely be made available to contract with nonprofit organizations to fund legal defense for people who are indigent, subject to removal, and in need of legal representation for issues related to their immigration statuses, who are: A. Residents eligible for and on the path to naturalization; or B. Immigrants and refugees.

First let’s say what this is not since that seems to be a point of confusion for some. People who entered the country without permission are not eligible for these funds. While certainly those people should have access to counsel to make their case and get right with the law, that will have to be done with private funds.

That leaves people who came here legally, either as a refugee or with a visa, and face a change in that status that would result in their removal. This can be due to simple mistakes in their paperwork, a missed hearing, or a crime.

The amendment does not presuppose that everyone, or even most people subject to removal should stay. It just says that we want people to have a fair hearing.

The 6th amendment of the Constitution guarantees that everyone in the US charged with a crime is entitled to effective counsel to support their defense. Immigration law is a civil issue, though the consequences can be dire. For comparison, most misdemeanors typically result in fines or short term incarceration but we are required to provide a public defender. Deporting a person to a country they may not know or they may not be welcome in, can be life altering and dangerous.

According to a national study from 2015, access to legal counsel means a huge difference in expect outcomes.

Drawing on data from over 1.2 million deportation cases decided between 2007 and 2012, we find that only 37% of all immigrants, and a mere 14% of detained immigrants, secured representation. Only 2% of immigrants obtained pro bono representation from nonprofit organizations, law school clinics, or large law firm volunteer programs… Moreover, we find that immigrants with attorneys fared far better: among similarly situated removal respondents, the odds were fifteen times greater that immigrants with representation, as compared to those without, sought relief, and five-and-a-half times greater that they obtained relief from removal.

The study shows that a considerable number of people in Pierce County who would otherwise be removed, would be able to stay here with their families, and contributing to the community.

Frequently asked questions

Are we, or should we be asked to pay for other civil cases?

I have no plans to program additional county dollars for other civil cases. For me the question is a matter of stakes and resources. The outcome of a civil case is almost always going to be much less consequential than deportation. Breaking up families, sending someone to a country they may not remember or even have stepped foot in, is a much bigger deal than a financial judgement.

There are also many more resources for non-immigration cases. The State Office of Legal Aid provides service to people needing access to justice without the means to pay. Immigration is a highly specialized areas of law and the system is straining to keep up.

Couldn’t this money be spent on veterans, the homeless, or some other group?

Short answer is yes. I would argue that we don’t need to make this a zero sum decision. In fact, some of those being deported are veterans themselves. Most disturbingly, we don’t know how many despite ICE being ordered to elevate such cases… another reason to make sure people have access to competent counsel.

Also, a general rule of local government is that we can’t simply refuse to do something because another service isn’t adequately funded.

Do other jurisdictions do this?

Yes. Most urban counties and large counties around the country do something similar. Seattle and King County program several times more. We know this will barely make a dent in the need, but it’s better than nothing and all I thought we could afford.

Conclusion

In the end the amendment failed 2–4 with Councilmember Campbell and myself in favor, and Councilmembers McCune, Richardson, Morrell, and Roach opposed. This isn’t the end. From some of the debate it’s clear that members may be open with more work to clarify the law and time to fit it in the budget process this fall. I’ll be bringing it back then.

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Derek Young

Pierce County Councilmember. Serving Gig Harbor, Fox Island, Key Peninsula, Ruston, and parts of North and West Tacoma.