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Advocates announce $500,000 legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants in Baltimore

Advocates announced a new $500,000 legal defense fund Thursday for undocumented immigrants in Baltimore in response to a series of high-profile federal immigration arrests here.

Standing in front of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Southeast Baltimore, Diana Morris director of the Open Society Institute's Baltimore branch, said many immigrants feel "under attack."

"We see children afraid to go to school," she said. "Parents afraid to drop their children off at school."

Advocates say they're concerned that many of the undocumented immigrants living in Baltimore do not have enough money to hire a lawyer. Since immigration offenses are often civil violations — not crimes — those accused are typically not entitled to a public defender. Immigrants facing deportation are four times more likely to lose their case if they don't have an attorney, the advocates say.

Catalina Rodriguez-Lima, director of the Mayor's Office of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, said the need for a legal defense fund has grown since President Donald Trump issued new executive orders targeting immigration.

Representatives with immigrant rights group CASA de Maryland say they've been contacted by more than 50 families seeking legal assistance.

"Our efforts to build an inclusive city are threatened by the increase of immigration enforcement and its ripple effects in families across the city," Rodriguez-Lima said.

The advocates have raised $225,000 of the $500,000 they say is needed to provide enough legal services. The Open Society Institute contributed $100,000, the Annie E. Casey Foundation contributed $100,000, and the Baltimore Community Foundation contributed $25,000. The advocates are seeking more contributions from both small and large donors. For every two dollars contributed to the fund, Open Society says it will provide another dollar.

The legal defense fund, called Safe City Baltimore, is based on similar programs in New York and Chicago. Money will go to educating immigrants on their rights before any federal action; planning to protect families from being deported or separated, such as filing for asylum or applying for children's passports; and fighting cases if arrests are made.

Fear increased in Baltimore this year after several high-profile arrests in Southeast Baltimore, including detentions of a popular barber, small-business owner and a father who dropped his child off at a local school. Advocates say none of the men had a criminal record.

"Over the past few months, our community here in Highlandtown has come under assault," said City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the area. "First we lost a barber; then a small-business owner. Finally a father was handcuffed and detained after dropping off his 9-year-old at school. The child's mother is back in Honduras. What kind of a country do we live in that would orphan a child in order to enforce its broken immigration laws?"

Shortly after taking office this year, Trump signed an executive order authorizing the hiring of 10,000 more immigration enforcement agents and broadening the categories of immigrants to be detained and deported.

That marked a change to federal immigration enforcement from President Barack Obama's final years in office.

In 2012, Obama was criticized by immigration advocates as the "Deporter in Chief" after the government removed nearly 410,000 people.

But in 2014, Obama directed agents to focus on "felons, not families; criminals, not children; gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids." In Obama's final year in office, the government deported 240,000. Nearly all who were not caught near the border had criminal records.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer has said there would be no "mass deportation" in America. Rather, he said, Trump has returned the discretion to enforce immigration laws to individual ICE officers.

Trump's executive orders and the memos from the Department of Homeland Security have left in place the Obama-era immigration program known as DACA, which defers enforcement against children who were brought to the United States.

For years, Baltimore officials have encouraged immigrants to move to the city to help combat population loss and and an increase in vacant homes. A pro-immigration group released a study last year that said companies owned by immigrants in Maryland employ 125,000 people, and immigrants pay $9 billion in taxes annually.

Baltimore's immigrant community has nearly doubled in the last decade. As of 2014, more than 46,000 foreign-born people call Baltimore home; fewer than one-third are undocumented, according to city officials.

In Baltimore, city officials say, the largest numbers of immigrants come from Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobego and El Salvador.

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