City Hall

How Far Does the City's $1 Million Legal Defense Fund Go?

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project director estimates a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 per case.

By Hayat Norimine April 17, 2017

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Council member Lorena Gonzalez stands with Tim Burgess as she announces the city's plans for a $1 million legal defense fund for immigrants in March 2017. 

The Seattle City Council on Monday afternoon unanimously approved a $1 million legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation who can't afford legal counsel.

Detained undocumented immigrants are 10.5 times more likely to be able to stay in the country when they have a lawyer, according to a study by the American Immigration Council. Published in September 2016, the study also found that only 8 percent of those detained in Tacoma's immigration court between 2005 and 2012 had legal representation. In downtown Seattle's immigration court, the number was much higher among non-detained immigrants at 65 percent.

Council member Lorena Gonzalez, who sponsored the legislation with Tim Burgess, said Seattle has been no exception when it comes to the fear immigrants have experienced since U.S. president Donald Trump signed executive orders cracking down on immigration. Gonzalez said the fund would give immigrants "their only fighting chance" against deportation. 

So how many undocumented immigrants can the city's $1 million legal defense fund actually benefit? 

Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said one deportation case typically costs $5,000-$10,000 for his organization to defend—by that measure the nonprofit can defend 100 to 200 people with the city's fund. Private attorneys can charge three to four times as much as nonprofit attorneys, Baron said, though the legislation requires that the city conduct a competitive bid process and contract with nonprofits. The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will provide an initial report next year and a final report in 2019 on how the money was used.

It's tough to say exactly how many undocumented immigrants are in the area and could face deportation. But last year alone, the Seattle Immigration Court completed 2,979 cases and the Tacoma Immigration Court completed 1,883 cases, according to the city. During the 2016 fiscal year, Seattle's immigration court had 7,229 pending cases and Tacoma's had 1,208 pending cases. The Pew Research Center estimated about 250,000 undocumented immigrants live in the state as of 2014. 

The money will come from the city's general subfund and be distributed to the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs to communities that developed relationships with undocumented immigrants. 

The legal defense fund excludes the $250,000 mayor Ed Murray announced in November to help Seattle Public Schools students and their families with immigration and King County's $750,000 fund for immigrant and refugee programs that was also approved by the county council on Monday. 

Updated May 3, 2017, at 8:40am. This post corrects that the funds can't be used for civil cases like domestic violence. 

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