Board votes to support immigration legal services

March 17, 2017

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners this week voted to provide $100,000 to nonprofits offering legal aid to immigrant residents concerned about their status or unclear of their rights in the midst of federal immigration policy change.

The vote shifts money from the general fund to the Department of County Human Services for allocation to nonprofits that offer “Know Your Rights” workshops, assist families to adjust their status, and represent individuals who don’t have representation or know their legal options but could face deportation.

John Herrera, director of the Immigration Legal Services at Catholic Charities said they’ve hosted 30 legal education trainings since November

“This year, the national landscape surrounding our community’s immigrants and refugees has profoundly changed, striking our families, our neighborhoods, community centers and public spaces with fear and uncertainty,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury, who requested the increase.

The evolving and uncertain federal policy changes on immigration and refugee resettlement has made it difficult to deliver health and social services. Staff report families have withdrawn from services, increasingly miss appointments and have started keeping their children away from school.

County law enforcement agencies abide by state law by prohibiting public employees from looking for or apprehending people for violations of federal immigration law. However, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has direct access to the state’s Law Enforcement Data System. In addition, the county cannot prohibit immigration agents from entering public places, such as lobbies and parking lots owned by the county. And while the agency has arrested residents scheduled to appear on routine matters at the county courthouse, ICE appears to be respecting, for the most part, its own internal guidelines regarding enforcement actions in Sensitive Locations -- places of worship, schools, medical centers and hospitals.

Staff in the county’s Health Department and Department of County Human Services say fear of deportation is making it more difficult to reach clients.

“This winter was one of the worst we’ve had, and people declined energy assistance,” said Rose Bak, co-director of the county’s Youth and Family Services division. Families are withdrawing applications for food assistance, too, she said. And at least six people seeking protection from a domestic abuser dropped their applications for court-ordered protection out of fear of visiting the courthouse.

It’s hard, Bak told the board Thursday. “We can’t comfort people,” she said, because staff can’t guarantee people won’t be detained by immigration officers while using a county service.

“We know we cannot allay every fear,” Chair Kafoury said. But she said the board has committed to lobby for moderate immigration policy and stability for residents living in legal limbo and fear.

“We need strong local leadership to counter intolerance at the federal level,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “It’s so important we step up locally to do this.”

The funds will support a partnership between nonprofit legal and immigrant rights groups that have struggled to meet demand for legal and education services in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to president. Since the election, Causa has offered 40 know-your-rights workshops. “But large gaps remain to educate, reach out and provide services,” said the nonprofit’s executive director, Andrea Williams.

John Herrera, director of the Immigration Legal Services at Catholic Charities said they’ve hosted 30 similar trainings since November, reaching 1,500 people. And they’re getting 50 calls a day from people seeking legal services. Elena CaJacob, a paralegal with Immigration Counseling Services, said they get as many as 100 calls a day and have a 2-month waiting list for upcoming know-your-rights workshops.

Michael Hsu, a lawyer with the Metropolitan Public Defender Services, speaks in support of funding for legal education

Michael Hsu, a lawyer with the Metropolitan Public Defender Services, said the criminal defense agency is developing an Immigrant Protection Project to represent those in administrative removal hearings in the event of a major increase in deportations (adult immigrants facing deportation do not ordinarily have a right to a publicly funded attorney).

He said he understands the fear so many undocumented residents feel right now. “Up until three months ago, I had lived as an undocumented person in America,” he told the board.

Hsu came to the United States from Taiwan with his mother, walking across the Canadian border during the winter of 1994. They settled in California, where his mother later remarried and where the couple opened a print shop.  He wanted to be a lawyer, but he was living without proper legal status himself.

“There were times when I was doubtful,” he said. “My mom’s the hero in all this. She’s not someone who can easily be held back.”  She told him, “everything’s going to work out. Just do your best.”

Hsu graduated cum laude from University of California at Irvine. He wasn’t eligible for federal financial aid, so the family paid his tuition. Hsu lived at home and worked weekends and summers in his family’s shop.

Then Hsu accepted a partial scholarship at Lewis & Clark Law School. He couldn’t legally work so it wasn’t unusual for his checking account to dwindle to $10 by month’s end. And he didn’t talk about his legal status, even to most friends. But it became hard to explain why he never drove, or why he used a passport as proof of identification when entering a bar.

Hsu graduated cum laude from law school and was admitted into the Oregon State Bar. But it wasn’t until 2012 when Hsu received temporary protection from deportation under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

“For the first time since I was eight, I felt like I could come out of the shadows and live my life to its fullest potential,” he told the board during Thursday’s meeting. He’s achieved much in his 31 years, but it’s the mundane events in a person's life that makes this home.

“America is where, at the age of 9, I first learned how to kick a soccer ball. It's where I learned how to carve a pumpkin for Halloween, how to roast a turkey for Thanksgiving, and how to sing Jingle Bells for Christmas,” he said. “It's where I have represented veterans in court hearings, and volunteered my time tutoring at-risk youth. America is where I grew up.”