Council members González and Burgess sponsored the $1 million legal defense fund for immigrants • Photo courtesy of Seattle City Council

In April Seattle City Council approved a $1 million legal defense fund for immigrants who can’t afford legal assistance. The legislation, sponsored by Council members Tim Burgess and Lorena González, allocates money to community organizations through a grant from the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs. Community organizations must apply for this grant in a competitive process; if approved, the fund will allow them to hire immigration attorneys and legal staff for immigration cases in the Seattle or Tacoma immigration courts.

The money will come from the City’s General Subfund, and any unused funds will carry over into the next year. While the fund so far only covers the year 2017, Councilmembers González and Burgess are looking at how to continue to fund legal defense for immigrants in refugees in the next budget cycle.

The Seattle area is home to around 150,000 undocumented immigrants. The legal defense fund came about as a response to the Trump Administration’s Executive Orders on immigration, and their interpretation by the Department of Homeland Security, that would greatly expand the number of people targeted for deportation. As a result, more and more immigrants will likely need legal help, according to the website for the fund.

Shortly after the fund was approved, an article in Seattle Metropolitan magazine examined how far a $1 million fund could go in helping those battling immigration cases. Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, told Seattle Metropolitan that each deportation case costs between $5,000 and $10,000 to defend. Assuming this, the fund could defend between 100 and 200 people each year.

The Seattle Metropolitan article notes that in 2016, the Seattle Immigration Court completed 2,979 cases, while the Tacoma Immigration Court completed 1,883 cases.

The website for the fund notes that it won’t be available to individuals directly. Those who need legal help should either contact an immigration attorney or a pro bono legal service such as the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (253-383-0519) or Colectiva Legal (206-931-1514).

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