Calling it a “modest investment but an important investment,” Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria formally proposed Wednesday putting up $200,000 from the city budget to help establish a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants facing detention or deportation proceedings.
Soria’s motion, backed by Councilman Oliver Baines, came after more than 40 people offered impassioned pleas during a budget hearing for the council to consider those who many described as some of the community’s most vulnerable residents. The hearing itself was preceded by a rally organized by Faith in Fresno, a coalition of clergy across the community, in front of Fresno City Hall to advocate for the funds.
But the council won’t make a decision on the proposal until Tuesday, when it votes on all of the motions offered by members over four days of budget hearings for all of the city’s departments. And one councilman, Garry Bredefeld, has already staked out his opposition. “So we have work to do,” Soria told advocates, urging them to reach out to the rest of the council to lobby for votes.
“It’s been a difficult issue to mull over (but) I know it’s the right thing to do,” Soria said. “The people elected me to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice. … My goal is to make sure we don’t break families apart, because that creates instability in our city.”
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They are our neighbors; they shop in our stores, they attend our schools. They may not vote, but they are part of our community.
Retired physician James Mendez, talking about undocumented immigrants
Supporters cited research by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy indicating that undocumented immigrants contributed an estimated $56.5 million in state and local taxes last year in Fresno County. “They are our neighbors; they shop in our stores, they attend our schools,” said James Mendez, a retired Fresno physician. “They may not vote, but they are part of our community.”
Several speakers said that while U.S. criminal courts provide legal counsel for defendants who can’t afford an attorney, that doesn’t happen in immigration courts. Sukaina Hussain, a community organizer with Faith in Fresno, said that more than 60 percent of people in immigration court go unrepresented by an attorney because they cannot afford one. Of those, all but 2 percent are eventually deported. The average cost of defense in an immigration court case is about $5,000, Hussain added.
Reza Nekumanesh, representing Fresno’s Islamic Cultural Center and a member of Faith in Fresno, said he visited an immigration detention center in Bakersfield last month and added that the issue of a defense fund “is not about criminals, terrorists or rapists.”
“This is about families, about people, about saving lives,” Nekumanesh told the council. “This is about offering opportunities, solace and love to those who need it most.”
Advocates said the city’s participation would be a springboard for leveraging more contributions foundations, organizations and private donors. But, they added, they plan on trying to establish the legal fund even if the City Council ultimately says no.
Only one member of the audience, Ben Bergquam, spoke against the proposal. Wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat popularized last year by President Donald Trump’s election campaign, Bergquam said a broken immigration system should not allow the city to use taxpayer dollars “for people who are here illegally.”
“Most immigrants here are good people,” he said. “But if you’ve been here 20 years and have not gotten a green card, there’s no excuse.”
I don’t think we’re in the business of helping people who have to defend themselves because they’re here illegally.
Fresno City Councilman Garry Bredefeld
Others, however, characterized it not as a financial issue, but a moral one.
Saburo Masada, who was a young boy when Japanese-Americans were displaced from their homes and businesses and sent to internment camps during World War II, asked the council to remember that episode in history. “Innocent people were sent to camps. No charges were filed, no trials held, no defense provided,” he said. “That was in 1942, and we don’t want to repeat that today.”
Baines seized upon a point that several speakers made about the council’s vote last month to include the phrase “In God We Trust” on the wall inside the council chamber. “‘In God We Trust’ is a reminder of our moral obligation to you,” Baines told the public. “This is not about money. This is the moral obligation of our time to stand up for these issues.”
Bredefeld said he admired the passion with which advocates spoke, but said he would oppose Soria’s proposal. “I support legal immigration. … But we are a nation of laws and we need to follow those laws,” he said. “I don’t think we’re in the business of helping people who have to defend themselves because they’re here illegally.”
If the council approves the measure – something that is far from certain – it could still be subject to a veto by Mayor Lee Brand, who is not a supporter. “I do not believe it is prudent to use our precious taxpayer resources on these issues, when we do not have enough money to fund core city services such as police, fire, parks and streets to the level they should be funded,” Brand wrote last month in a reply to Faith in Fresno’s proposal.