Originally published by The Washington Post
Dozens of people testified at a public hearing in Montgomery County on Tuesday night over the county council’s proposed move to spend public money on attorneys for immigrants facing deportation.
The council didn’t take action on Tuesday at the meeting, held in the council’s hearing room before an audience that filled the seats and overflowed into the back aisle — a final vote on the measure has not yet been scheduled.
A divided audience provided hearty applause after speakers, both for and against the measure, testified before the council for two hours.
Last month, the council introduced the special appropriation, which would grant nearly $374,000 from the county’s general fund to the D.C. nonprofit Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition to provide lawyers to immigrants living in Montgomery County who are facing deportation proceedings. The proposal would apply to those at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and would exclude immigrants who have been convicted of certain serious crimes from being eligible for the program, although the exact list of crimes is still being created.
If the council approves the measure, Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction would join Prince George’s County and Baltimore City in funding such programs for those who can’t afford lawyers.
Kensington resident Eden Fisher Durbin called the idea “moral, just and fiscally responsible.”
“Who are we if we let our neighbors, those we love or work with or go to school with, be taken away just because they can’t pay for a lawyer?” she asked, as some in the audience waved signs in support.
Others, including clergymembers, urged the council to go farther and not exclude those with criminal convictions from qualifying for the help.
But the proposal also drew testimony from residents who argued the county should shelve the plan. Several in the audience held up their own signs — “Be responsible with taxpayer $$$” and “When will citizens matter?”
“Paying for legal representation for illegal immigrants is simply another show of defiance against President Trump’s immigration crackdown,” said Pam Smith, a Kensington resident. “That should not be the role of county government.”
County resident Wei Wang said the proposal would be unfair to those who immigrated to the United States legally, such as herself.
“This special appropriation is against American values of fairness,” she said. “It is not fair for legal immigrants who respect U.S. immigration laws.”
Others argued that the county should instead use the money for other purposes, such as providing school supplies for teachers or repaving roads.
Deportation proceedings have been stepped up under the Trump administration, with immigrants who don’t have any criminal convictions arrested for immigration violations at an increasing rate, according to a report by the American Immigration Lawyers Association cited by county council staff.
Since immigration violations are civil, not criminal, those facing deportation are not entitled to publicly funded legal representation.
“A lot of folks have asked why we’re considering such an important or significant item and it is certainly my belief what this country should be focusing on is comprehensive immigration reform,” Council president Hans Riemer (D-At Large) said at the beginning of the meeting. “If that was passed at the federal level, many, many of our residents would have a pathway to citizenship and efforts like this would not be necessary. But here we are.”