Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez speaks at a press conference to announce the city's new partner for defending deportation cases. Her election to the state senate will require a special election to fill her empty seat. Photo by Jason Ruiz

After approving funding for an immigrant deportation defense fund in December the city formally announced the firm it would be partnering with to represent Long Beach residents who are in danger of being displaced from their communities by federal immigration officers.

The new partnership was announced Wednesday morning at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church near Downtown, where immigrant rights activists groups and attorneys from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center spoke to community members and the media. The center is the largest non-profit provider of deportation legal services in Southern California.

The fund was injected with a one-time $250,000 grant from the city that was then bolstered by a $100,000 grant from the Vera Institute of Justice, the non-profit the city tapped to administer the fund in its vote last year. The partnership will use the money from the fund, formally titled the Long Beach Justice Fund.

“Long Beach is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and immigrants make big contributions to the culture, economy and spirit of our city,” Mayor Robert Garcia said in a release. “The Justice Fund will work to support immigrants and keep families together.”

The fund originated from a series of votes taken by the City Council in 2018 where it first aligned itself with the state’s sanctuary bill that banned local law enforcement from coordinating with federal immigration officers and also initiated the fund that would help immigrants who are facing deportation secure legal representation.

Creating the fund, which provides universal assistance to Long Beach residents regardless of past convictions, was controversial, with a number of council members objecting to the use of taxpayer money being used to aid convicted criminals and the potentially small number of people that could be helped by the fund.

Lindsay Toczylowski, the executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center, said that the $350,000 in initial funding could have a widespread effect even if it’s limited in the amount of cases.

“Even though we’re talking about anywhere from 20-40 individuals it’s always important to remember that each individual has such ripple effect in the community,” Toczylowski said.

“They can be homeowners, they can be small business owners, they’re parents and if we’re able to win a case and get someone out of Adelanto [Detention Center] and return them to their family it will not only be having an impact on that individual but on everyone that relies on them, including the economy of Long Beach.”

She said that cases where people are detained and located farther away from the city will be more expensive for the center to represent, but she added that those are also the most desperate cases and the ones in which the center’s representation can have the most impact, like bringing people home.

The Justice Fund will have one full-time staff attorney and management staff from the center assigned to it as it works to represent Long Beach residents who have been detained and are facing deportation. The fund could also benefit non-detained individuals in the city who are referred to the center by community organizations.

Toczylowski said the stakes have been raised since the center first started bidding for this contract as it was announced that detention centers in Orange County were in the process of closing and Long Beach residents could now be shipped to a private prison in Adelanto which she described as “one of the most hopeless places in California.”

Because the funding from the city was a one-time source the Vera Institute and organizers said they will seek donations from members of the community and philanthropic sources to continue the Justice Fund in coming years.

Long Beach Builds on State’s Sanctuary Bill But Leaves Gaps Advocates Hoped To Close

James Suazo, associate director of Long Beach Forward, a member of of the immigrants rights coalition, said that there have been conversations with a number of potential funding sources but as of now now there is no permanent funding mechanism for the Justice Fund.

Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, who is currently in a run-off campaign to become a member of the California State Senate, made the original motion for the city to align itself with the state’s sanctuary bill.

At the press conference Gonzalez said that as the representative for a district that is 60% Latino it was important for her to be part of the resolution that created the Justice Fund.

Whether she’s in Sacramento or still on the Long Beach City Council in the coming years Gonzalez said she could see herself pushing for a more permanent funding source for things like the Justice Fund.

“I think this has the ability to be very successful,” Gonzalez said. “People who are being picked up off the street and detained are desperate and they need to know that the city is supporting them.”

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.