The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday unanimously approved $373,957 in funds for legal services for immigrants facing deportation, as the Council was set to approve its budget.
The vote was met with protest from both immigration and legal advocates, who had originally supported the measure, and by opponents who said they do not want the County to spend taxpayer dollars on legal services for immigrants.
The Capital Area Immigration Rights Coalition, the group that originally had made the request for the County funds to help defend immigrants facing deportations, withdrew its request — citing a list exemption the Council added to the funding bill after consulting State’s Attorney for Montgomery County John McCarthy.
“Legal representation allows people to ensure that they understand and take advantage of their rights under the law,” said Council President Hans Riemer (D-at large). “When individuals have representation, they are more successful in getting an immigration judge to grant relief.”
Unlike in criminal cases, people facing charges in immigration courts do not have the right to an attorney if they cannot afford one, given that immigration falls under civil law in the United States.
While many immigration advocates said they supported some exclusions for people convicted of major felonies, such first-degree murder and rape, McCarthy asked the Council to add more exclusions to the list. These might include domestic violence and extortion convictions.
As part of the program, the County will ask for a couple of stipulations to the funds: One is that the money goes toward legal services for County residents who are at least 200 percent below the poverty line. In addition, the funds cannot go to any person convicted of a major crime such as murder, rape, or involvement with a criminal gang.
However, after consultation with McCarthy, the Council added more criminal convictions, such as homicide by motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and first- and second-degree assault.
“Should the Council adopt these provisions the program in essence will be gutted and rendered pointless,” said George Escobar, senior director of services at CASA, an immigration advocacy group. “This effectively enables the Trump Administration’s destructive power.”
Escobar led a protest outside Montgomery County Circuit on Monday, criticizing McCarthy – claiming he was attempting to water down the funding for legal services to help preserve President Donald J. Trump’s policies of deporting undocumented immigrants.
“Almost every other major community that has dealt with this – New York, California – has also made a distinction between those who are here and otherwise law-abiding and those who actually committed crimes that are not okay,” said Council member Roger Berliner (D-1) after discussing proposed exclusions McCarthy proposed last month.
While protesters gathered outside circuit court Monday, counter protesters stood next to them in support of McCarthy and against the pending Council vote to fund legal services for immigrants facing deportation.
“What I am against is using public money, my money, to defend for them against the federal government’s law enforcement,” said Cheng Tu, a Rockville resident who immigrated to the United States from China in 1994.
Tu said the fact that the County would fund legal representation for people who may have broken U.S. immigration laws offended him, especially since he paid attorneys thousands of dollars to help sort through paperwork to make sure he immigrated legally to the United States.
The County now joins other jurisdictions across the country, such as New York; California; and King County, Washington State, which have put public funding toward supporting legal services for immigrants. Since Donald Trump was first elected President in November 2016, the County Council has taken numerous opportunities to condemn him for various issues. However, while many members of local government had harsh words for Trump and his immigration policies they conceded that there was nothing the County could do to change how the federal government enforces immigration laws.