Santa Clara County officials are preparing another round of grant funding to aid undocumented immigrants facing the threat of deportation amid heightened immigration enforcement activity in the Bay Area.
In June, Santa Clara County Supervisors committed $3.5 million to more than a dozen nonprofits in order to increase legal aid available to the county's immigrant community. The decision was largely a response to rhetoric from President Donald Trump -- and later Trump's executive orders -- shifting priorities toward heavy-handed immigration enforcement.
Since then, there have been multiple well-publicized sweeps by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) targeting the Bay Area as recently as last month. ICE released a statement on Feb. 27 touting the agency's arrests of more than 150 people in the Bay Area, about half of whom had criminal convictions, in a weeklong effort targeting so-called sanctuary jurisdictions.
In an effort to react quickly to what they saw as a threat to its constituents, county supervisors agreed to distribute the $3.5 million to 18 nonprofits in the county that provide a broad range of services, including "Know Your Rights" education and legal defense during deportation proceedings.
County administrators say the need for legal representation still far exceeds the demand, and they will return to the Board of Supervisors with recommendations this month to renew funding through the 2018-19 fiscal year. Although specific details are still to come, the funding will likely shift away from education initiatives and focus more on legal defense.
Among the nonprofits helping North County residents is Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto (CLSEPA), which received $320,000 in county grant funds this year and recently opened up a new office on Fairchild Drive in Mountain View. Reports from the county say that as of December, the nonprofit provided "direct representation" to 86 unaccompanied minors and families with children who were in expedited deportation proceedings in the San Francisco Immigration Court since June. All of them were Latino, with many from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
"Many of these children and families have fled violence and abuse in Central America," according to the staff report.
ICE activity has ramped up since fall, with quite a few arrests in San Jose as well as other cities in Santa Clara County, according Misha Seay, a senior immigration attorney for CLSEPA. Although the name suggests otherwise, she said the organization opened the Mountain View office in order to expand its outreach to North County residents, and wants to let the immigrant community know that legal help is available. Unlike other court proceedings, immigration courts are not required to provide a legal defense to the defendant.
"As you can imagine, that creates a huge gap in services and a big need for the immigrant population who can't afford private counsel on their own," she said.
In August, Santa Clara County launched the Rapid Response Network, which calls on community members to alert immigration advocacy groups whenever ICE is suspected of detaining someone in the community. Once an arrest is confirmed, the network calls on attorneys like the ones at CLSEPA to offer legal representation to whoever was picked up.
"That's the part we're heavily involved in, and it's actually been occurring quite frequently," Seay said. "We'll go to ICE and meet with the (detainee) before they get transported to the detention center."
One of the major hurdles for CLSEPA and similar advocacy groups is that the immigration courts were already clogged up before Trump took office, and it's only gotten worse since then. In a report to the county, CLSEPA staffers noted that the backlog has gotten so bad that initial hearings for unaccompanied children at the San Francisco Immigration Court are being scheduled for 2021, and hearings for asylum applicants are being pushed out between two and five years, depending on the judge.
"These backlogs create uncertainty and anxiety for clients, who have to wait years for their cases to be resolved," according to the report. "This backlog also places pressure on our immigration program; because cases are not closing, it limits the number of new cases that we can initiate."
Delegating the immigrant support to nonprofits using taxpayer dollars hasn't been without its own set of problems. At a Finance and Government Operations Committee meeting last week, County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said that the partnership comes with a higher level of accountability that, frankly, none of the nonprofit partners seems to want.
At the same time, some of the nonprofits in the latest reports aren't meeting the goals or spending the money allocated by the county, which Chavez worried is locking up money that could be better spent elsewhere.
"I want to make sure we can take some of the remaining money that's not being spent and redirect it, because we are in a crisis," she said. "And I don't think it's okay to leave money that's not really being drawn down while we have individuals who are literally in crisis right now and we can help."