Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will soon establish a $1 million legal defense fund for residents who face immigration proceedings.
The Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance establishing the fund at its April 17 meeting. Council President Bruce Harrell called the ordinance, introduced by councilmembers Lorena Gonzalez and Tim Burgess, “landmark legislation.”
The ordinance reallocates existing money in the office to create a fund to assist Seattle residents who would otherwise be unable to pay for an attorney in a federal immigration proceeding. The funding is intended to last through the rest of 2017 and 2018.
Immigration attorneys and activists lauded the bill in public comment.
“We are seeing the problems a day-to-day basis, what this administration is doing to the immigrant community here,” Tahmina Watson of Watson Immigration Law said. “We are … seeing victims of domestic violence who are at risk of being deported. People are at risk of being taken into the criminal system — whether they’ve done anything or not — without due process.”
Janet Gwilym, an attorney liaison with Microsoft for the organization Kids in Need of Defense, said the fund could be particularly vital for children who face the threat of deportation.
“King County has the largest population of unaccompanied children in Washington state, with one-third of the population in our county,” Gwilym said. “It is nearly impossible for children to represent themselves in immigration proceedings.”
The defense fund legislation was introduced on Cambodian Genocide Memorial Day, and drew the support of Cambodian-American activists and attorneys. Many of those speakers drew parallels between current U.S. military actions in the Middle East, and the carpet-bombing of Cambodia under the Nixon Administration, which led many Cambodian refugees to American shores.
“There are 30 Cambodian-Americans right now facing deportation between this month and next month,” Sina Sam said. “They could easily benefit from something like this.”
The King County Council on Monday approved $750,000 in funding to support the immigrant and refugee communities here, by supporting programs that educate them of their rights and provide legal resources to ensure they’re upheld.
Funds will be distributed in three main areas. A partnership with the Seattle Foundation will spend $350,000 of that sum to develop a “Resilience Fund,” which would allow public and private funders to invest in organizations supporting at-risk communities. Aid organizations helping immigrants navigate legal proceedings will receive $300,000, and $100,000 will support informational organizations, such as those that provide “Know your Rights” trainings.
This funding comes from unspent money in the county’s 2015-16 budget.