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Baltimore approves spending of $200,000 to pay lawyers to help immigrants fight deportations

As the Trump administration continues its battle against illegal immigration, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said Wednesday the city will pay a team of lawyers to represent immigrants facing deportation.

The city’s spending panel on Wednesday approved spending $200,000 to pay for the attorneys, who the Democratic mayor said will get to work within weeks defending immigrants against federal deportation lawyers.

“We hope that everyone gets due process,” Pugh said.

Half of the $200,000 is funded by a grant from the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York nonprofit. The other half will come from the city’s budget.

The combined pot of money is expected to help about 40 people obtain legal representation.

The Vera Institute also will provide the mayor’s office with technical assistance and support, including help identifying lawyers, providing research and data and sharing best practices

The funding is part of a broader effort to help immigrants that city officials, charity leaders and advocates launched after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Under the Republican president, federal immigration authorities have increased deportations.

In September, federal immigration officials arrested 28 people in Maryland during a nationwide sweep targeting immigration violations in what Trump has labeled “sanctuary” jurisdictions. Five were arrested in Baltimore, one was arrested in Baltimore County, 11 in Prince George’s County and 11 in Montgomery County, federal officials said.

Immigrants who face deportation charges are far more likely to lose their cases when they do not have a lawyer, advocates say. Cities and counties around the nation have been setting up funds to help pay for those lawyers because the Constitution’s guarantee of legal representation does not extend to people facing immigration charges.

After the city’s five-member spending board voted, Pugh compared having taxpayers fund such lawyers to taxpayer funding for public defenders who represent people who cannot afford attorneys in criminal cases.

“We’re not making a decision as to their status, we’re making the decision to be supportive of individuals who live in our city,” Pugh said.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who sits on the board, said the money could help keep families together and prevent children being abandoned. Doing so would reduce government costs, he added.

“If their parents are deported, who’s going to take care of them? They become orphans,” Young said. “Then they are in the system which costs us more money.”

But Maryland Republicans questioned whether the money is being wisely spent given funding shortfall issues in Baltimore such as public schools without heat.

“My hunch is that the vast majority of Baltimore residents would prefer to have that money spent on heat and air conditioning in Baltimore public schools instead of legal fees,” Maryland’s GOP chairman Dirk Haire said through a spokesman.

The lawyers will be provided by the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, which is working on a similar effort with Prince George’s County officials.

Catalina Rodriguez Lima, director of the mayor’s Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, said she was eager to see the lawyers get to work.

The current immigration policies have disrupted our communities — including families, schools and workplaces,” she said. “Due process and fair representation will help reduce fear and disrupt the ripple effects of deportation in our families.”

Other local charitable groups have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for other parts of the effort, called Safe City Baltimore. They include helping immigrant families prepare safety plans and getting immigrants out of detention.

Since Trump took office, tensions over immigration have mounted between his administration and left-leaning local governments.

On Jan. 25, five days after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive that “cracks down on sanctuary cities” that try to shield some immigrants in the country illegally from deportation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has criticized Baltimore as being a sanctuary city, sometimes described as one where officials refuse to cooperate with federal authorities seeking to arrest immigrants in the country illegally.

Pugh rejects the term sanctuary city, instead calling Baltimore a “welcoming” city. She notes that the state runs Baltimore’s jail, and thus city officials do not make decisions about whether to detain immigrants sought by federal authorities.

Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of federal authorities but they can ask local law enforcement agencies for help — assistance police and jails in many areas decline to provide.

The fiercest clashes have come in California where local authorities have tipped communities off to impending raids by federal agents and lawmakers have tried to impose limits on how businesses can comply with immigration enforcement efforts. On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department sued California, alleging some of the legal changes it had made violated the Constitution.

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