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Network of local legal-defense funds for immigrants expanding

By COLLEEN SLEVIN, Associated Press

DENVER (AP) — A network of U.S. cities and counties paying for lawyers to represent immigrants facing deportation in the wake of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown is headed for an expansion.

During a network conference Thursday in Denver, the New York-based group Vera Institute of Justice announced it was seeking proposals from cities and counties to join its Safety and Fairness for Everyone Network.

The network now includes 12 cities and counties in eight states — California, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia and Maryland — that are using taxpayer dollars to pay for legal representation, although some also raise private money. Although there were efforts to provide attorneys to immigrants in California before the election of President Donald Trump, the other members did not do so until 2017, said Annie Chen, network director.

In the last year, 38 percent of immigrants who have gotten lawyers through the network were able to remain in the United States, up from about 3 percent among those who did not have representation, she said.

Although people accused of violating criminal laws must be represented by a public defender if they can’t afford to hire an attorney, people accused of being in the country illegally face civil proceedings and are not required to have a lawyer.

Many of them are held in immigration-detention centers and unable to work, making it difficult for them to hire an attorney, said Mekela Goehring, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocacy Network, which works to represent people held at the Denver area’s immigration detention center in Aurora.

Denver, the latest to join the network, has set aside $385,000 for an immigrant-defense fund, which will be divided among four nonprofit groups, including Goehring’s group.

Mayor Michael Hancock said the city’s decision is a result of the outpouring of fear and anxiety from the city’s immigrants because of Trump’s policies.

“There is no greater responsibility that I have as mayor than to keep all residents of Denver, undocumented or not, safe and secure and when we have challenging language that comes out of Washington that threatens that very covenant that we have with all of our residents it makes it doubly difficult for us to help people feel safe in their city,” he said.

The Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocacy Network is now hiring two attorneys to work full-time to represent immigrants from Denver being held in the Aurora detention facility, which will effectively double the amount of staff working with detainees there, Goehring said. They will also be able to continue working with people once they are able to be released on bond since immigration cases can take years to resolve.

Although Denver had to fight to continue to receive federal funding after passing a law that limited its cooperation with immigration authorities, Kristin Bronson, a lawyer representing Denver, said the federal government has not challenged the legality of using city money to provide due process to immigrants.

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