May Day demonstrators march to Long Beach City Hall, May 2, 2018. Photo by Stephanie Rivera.

Low-income immigrants facing deportation are one step closer to receiving free legal counsel with City Council’s selection Tuesday night of a national nonprofit to oversee a fund that would cover the costs.

In a 7-3 vote—with councilmembers Suzie Price, Stacy Mungo and Daryl Supernaw dissenting—the council voted to contract with the Vera Institute of Justice to oversee the Long Beach Justice Fund, which will provide $250,000 for a two-year period to cover legal representation for low-income immigrants who live or work in Long Beach.

As part of the agreement with Vera, the city will have an opportunity to join its SAFE (Safety & Fairness for Everyone) Cities Network, which operates similar programs in 12 other jurisdictions nationwide, and apply for a $100,000 matching-grant.

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“Overall they have community trust, which is imperative,” said Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, a longtime proponent of sanctuary policies, including legal defense funding.

The partnership received overwhelming vocal support from community organizers and residents who have been asking for such a fund among other local Sanctuary  policies over the years.

“I fall under those who will benefit from this fund,” said Cal State Long Beach student Stephanie Medina who is president of the student organization FUEL (For Undocumented Empowered Leaders). “We must remember that universal representation is important for fighting against unjust laws in this country.”

The vote was not without a series of questions from council members, mainly from Price, who as an Orange County prosecutor questioned the use of taxpayer money for universal representation, including those with criminal convictions.

Price and Supernaw both expressed support for Mungo’s substitute motion which would have given the funding to the local nonprofit Centro CHA, which provides immigration services, and the Long Beach Bar Association, which was also considered by city staff at the council’s request.

Mungo questioned the number of people who would benefit from the funding, noting that some individuals who may get paid minimum wage and be considered middle class may not qualify if they they don’t live 200 percent under the federal poverty level (which would be an annual income of just over $50,000 for a family of four).

She also said that in previous talks with the Bar Association, some legal cases may cost over $10,000 per person, especially those with past convictions, which could result in a legal defense fund that may only help just over a dozen people.

“I would like this fund to go towards immigrants fighting deportation, not as a result of a current criminal conviction,” Price said.

But Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce said the majority of deportation cases she’s aware of are not connected to criminal convictions. Even if some had convictions that either directly or indirectly contributed to their deportation, Councilman Rex Richardson said the court system has not always been fair to certain communities.

“There is a reality that our communities face, that our criminal justice system is flawed, and abuse does take place,” Richardson said.

Gonzalez said every situation is different, noting that she wrote a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown on behalf of Phal Sok, a Cambodian refugee who settled in Long Beach decades ago and was convicted of second degree robbery as a youth but was tried in adult court. After Sok served his time he went on to become a youth justice community organizer. Sok was under removal proceedings when he was pardoned by Brown in August.

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Others weren’t so lucky, said Uranga, who mentioned the deportation of a Long Beach father of six, including an Army veteran, in 2016.

Jose Alvarez had been a law-abiding resident after serving time for a drug possession felony.

Because of a “quirk in the justice system”, Uranga said, Alvarez was pulled over by CSULB police for a broken tail light when he was on his way to picking up his son from work near the campus. A warrant check revealed an old deportation order for the 21-year-old drug conviction and by the next morning Alvarez was deported to Tijuana.

“This is a perfect example where the deportation fund would have come in and helped him,” Uranga said. “He was living an exemplary life, paid his dues. Now there’s a broken family.”

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The approval of the contract between the city and Vera came with an addition proposed by Richardson to add a timeline for implementation and that there be regular reporting to the City Council.

The Long Beach Justice Fund is anticipated to provide services that include removal defense for persons detained and legal support for asylum-seekers, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applicants and permanent residents.


Stephanie Rivera is the community engagement editor. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @StephRivera88.