City Council looks to fund immigrant legal services
On Thursday, the City Council will vote on an ordinance that will provide funding for nonprofits that provide legal services to low-income residents and immigrants in San Antonio.
The move is in response to widespread fear growing in the immigrant community after the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016, and the introduction of a “show me your papers” law in Texas — also known as Senate Bill 4, or SB4 — that will allow for greater collaboration between local law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“November of last year was about the time that (San Antonio) started have an increased burden,” District 4 councilman Rey Saldaña said. “Nonprofits started telling us that they couldn’t meet the need of people coming to their door for legal support.”
If passed, the measure would provide $250,000 for Catholic Charities, Refugee & Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and American Gateways in partnership with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
The City Council chose to provide supplemental funding to the three organizations to address the increased need, rather than ramp up the city’s legal services directly, because the nonprofits already have immigrants’ trust.
Saldaña said the immigrant population became increasingly fearful under the new administration. The council began to recognize that immigrants were too afraid to turn to law enforcement or city officials for help. By January, talks of SB4, which targets sanctuary cities by forcing city and law enforcement officials to comply with immigration laws, escalated the fear.
“The bill doesn’t only apply to people with criminal record or those who have been arrested, it applies to anyone lawfully detained by a police officer, so that’s almost any situation pre-arrest, be it you were jay walking or pulled over because you were speeding or have a traffic violation or you are at a party and an officer is responding to a noise complaint – under the law they’ll be able to ask you about your immigration status,” Marisa Bono, former lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and Education (MALDF), told the Rivard Report in June.
Bono is now Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s chief of policy.
“Since the election and the administration change, there has been an incredible amount of fear in the immigrant community and we have seen unprecedented levels of immigrants in San Antonio coming to our offices and seeking legal services,” said Amy Fischer, policy director for RAICES. “Then, since the SB4 talks started, we have seen much more demand for the services.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed SB4 into law in May. It goes into effect Sept. 1.
San Antonio was one of several Texas cities to sign onto a lawsuit against SB4 in June. The suit claims that SB4 violates the constitution in several ways, including the Supremacy Clause — which says federal law trumps state law, according to the Dallas Morning News.
The organizations will provide legal services — such as filing power-of-attorney forms to protect children in cases where parents are deported — and “know-your-rights education” to better inform and empower the community.
The goal is to protect as many members of the San Antonio immigrant community as possible and give them the power to fight back, Fischer said.
To contract with the three nonprofits, the city will provide $150,000 from its general fund. In addition, the Vera Institute for Justice chipped in a grant worth $100,000.
San Antonio will not be the first city to provide this type of funding. Austin granted Catholic Charities $200,000 in February.
Saldaña says the vote is to formalize the measure and accept the $100,000 grant. He expects it will pass.
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