Speakers at a public hearing Tuesday night in Rockville were fiercely divided over a Montgomery County Council proposal to provide about $374,000 in taxpayer funds to a nonprofit that intends to use the money to legally represent immigrant residents facing deportation.
The more than two dozen speakers included immigrants who said they had completed the federal government’s lengthy approval process to legally obtain their citizenship and expressed concern that providing county funding to help other immigrants would contradict federal law.
Supporters argued that deportation has far-reaching consequences for local families and children and that not being represented by an attorney during an immigration hearing is a significant disadvantage.
The applause and jeers after speakers from both sides of the debate finished talking became so raucous at times that County Council President Hans Riemer had to calm multiple times the crowd that filled the council’s third-floor hearing room.
All nine council members are sponsoring the proposal to provide the funding to the Washington, D.C.-based Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR), which plans to use it to provide screening and legal services to adult residents in deportation proceedings. Unlike in criminal cases, the U.S. doesn’t provide a right to appointed counsel in immigration cases. A study by the Vera Institute found that immigrants in such proceedings raise their chances of a successful outcome from 4 percent to 48 percent when represented by an attorney, according to council staff documents.
CAIR reported to the council that of the 65 county residents detained for deportation proceedings in 2016, it could only represent four of them. The organization estimates that about 90 detained immigrants won’t be able to pay for counsel this year.
Paul Schmidt, a former immigration judge and former head of the Board of Immigration Appeals, said there’s “an attack on due process in U.S. immigration courts.” He explained that the pro bono system, funded by private contributors, to provide attorneys to immigrants facing deportation is inadequate.
“The only way to ensure a person has due process … is with an attorney,” Schmidt said.
Speakers who oppose the funding proposal told the council that residents who support providing legal funding should donate to private nonprofits that already do that type of work instead of expecting the county to use taxpayer funds.
“The needs of the citizens come before any noncitizen,” Katie King said. “The initiative should be taken on solely by nonprofits that can fundraise.”
Wei Wang, who said she was a registered voter living in Montgomery County, said she spent five years applying for jobs before she entered the country legally. She opposed the funding.
“This will send a wrong message to the world, that you can ignore immigration laws, enter the U.S. illegally and we will support you with free legal assistance,” Wang said.
Amy Waychoff, a county resident of 30 years, said it’s “morally wrong to take money from taxpayers and give it to illegal immigrants who should not be in Montgomery County in the first place.”
Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrant rights group Casa de Maryland, said Monday in an interview with Bethesda Beat that providing the funds would show that the county is taking a leadership role on the immigration issue.
“Our immigration system is broken and we truly believe it is the responsibility of the county to resolve this issue and protect those people who are not criminals,” Torres said.
The county wouldn’t be the first jurisdiction in the state to approve legal funding for immigrants. In March, Baltimore City approved $200,000 in funds to help pay for immigration attorneys and last year Prince George’s County provided $100,000 for a similar measure.
The council has not scheduled a vote on the funding proposal. On Monday, Riemer said during his weekly press briefing that he believes the initiative will be a positive move for the county.
“I feel we are doing the right thing here,” Riemer said.
The current version of the appropriation would prevent immigrants convicted of serious crimes from being eligible to access the legal funds through CAIR. Also, only immigrants earning below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level would be eligible for the services.