As part of the SAFE Cities Network, Austin is now providing free legal representation to anyone facing deportation.
SAFE, which stands for Safety and Fairness for Everyone, was started by the national nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice to find cities that would pledge to support their immigrant populations in the face of increasing immigration enforcement.
Immigration law falls into the category of civil law. Unlike criminal law, which requires courts to provide a lawyer to a defendant free of charge, civil law does not compel courts to provide free legal counsel if the defendant is unable to afford it on their own.
Both Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Gregorio Casar have been involved with SAFE Cities in Austin, according to Andy Tate, senior public information specialist for the City of Austin. They have been outspoken about protecting the immigrant community from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“The mayor doesn’t believe the new ICE enforcement policies keep Austin safe,” said Jason Stanford, communications director for the mayor. “We don’t want our immigrant community mistaking our local police for ICE … That’s why it’s so important to the city council to fight this.”
Following a competitive selection process in which dozens of cities applied to become members of the network, Austin, San Antonio and six other cities were chosen. But, according to Vera’s website, they plan to continue expanding the network to encompass more cities in the future.
Austin appropriated $200,000 over the summer to help provide legal representation to immigrant residents. Stanford said the funds served as a response to the immigration crackdown from President Donald Trump’s administration and the possible implementation of Senate Bill 4, the state anti-sanctuary cities law which could force cities’ local police forces to work with federal immigration agents.
Now, as a member of SAFE Cities Network, Austin will receive even more funding to ensure everyone, regardless of the reason for their deportation, can have legal representation during the process.
American Gateways has been administering the SAFE Cities program in Austin. The local nonprofit serves as an advocacy organization that provides legal counsel and other services to immigrants and refugees.
Robert Painter, American Gateways director of pro bono programs and communications, said legal representation is extremely necessary for deportation cases and can often drastically change their outcome.
“The single greatest factor in determining your immigration case is whether or not you have representation,” Painter said.
Vera conducted a study of the effects of legal representation in immigration courts, and the number of cases won by defendants jumped from less than 5 percent to 48 percent if they had a lawyer.
Previously, American Gateways has been forced to turn away some individuals facing deportation due to a lack of funding and resources. Now, they will not have to turn away anyone, Painter said.
“It’s been good to be able to turn around and tell the community members that we have (their) back, that we’re better equipped to have (their) back than we (were) before,” Painter said.
Undocumented student Daniela Rojas, who is also a member of the immigrant advocacy group Jolt, said it’s disappointing that cities must resort to measures like this to ensure universal legal representation, something that seems like a fundamental right.
“It’s more like a Band-Aid,” Latin American studies junior Rojas said. “But there’s at least something positive, some support (from the cit y).”