Immigrant Legal Aid Group Withdraws Request for Montgomery County Funding

County Council plans to realign funding to enable other groups to apply for immigrant legal aid money


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The rally and counter protest over immigration legal aid funding at Montgomery County Circuit Court in Rockville Monday

Andrew Metcalf

A Washington, D.C., nonprofit set to receive about $374,000 in Montgomery County funds to provide deportation defense to detained immigrants has withdrawn its request for the money in response to an updated list of criminal convictions that would bar certain immigrants from receiving legal aid.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy had requested that the County Council update its list of criminal convictions that would exclude immigrants from receiving legal representation in civil immigration proceedings to include convictions of fraud, distribution of heroin, second- and third-degree burglary and obstruction of justice—among other crimes.

The council had planned to provide the funds to the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (CAIR Coalition), a regional nonprofit that regularly provides legal assistance to detained immigrants facing deportation. All nine members of the council supported the initial proposal to provide the funds and the council is scheduled to vote on the resolution Tuesday.

Council President Hans Riemer said Monday if the council approves the resolution the funds could be available to any legal aid organization that provides assistance to immigrants who are county residents in deportation proceedings.

He added that the change will enable the funds to be used by immigrants who live in the county who face immigration proceedings, but will no longer be limited to immigrants being held in an immigration detention facility.

“We can’t help as many people if we limit the funds to those individuals who have been detained,” Riemer said.

The original list of criminal convictions in the initial version of the special appropriation included serious felonies such as first-degree sex offenses, murder and participation in a criminal gang.

McCarthy said in a statement Monday that he was “shocked” that CAIR Coalition was withdrawing “from offering this service to that segment of law-abiding residents of Montgomery County who need their services.”

“I would request that anyone objectively looking at this proposal review the list of crimes that are on the exclusionary list and ask yourself, do I want my tax dollars being used in an immigration matter defending an individual who committed this crime in my community?” McCarthy said.

Claudia Cubas, the litigation director for CAIR Coalition, said in an interview with Bethesda Beat Monday that the list put forth by McCarthy resulted in favoring some groups of immigrants over others.

“I’m very concerned it would have excluded close to three-fourths of the people we were trying to serve, which is at the end of the day no help at all,” Cubas said.

She noted that someone could be convicted of obstruction of justice for failing to roll down their window for a police officer and described some of the other infractions on the latest exclusion list as “minor offenses that are not violent.”

She said Baltimore city and Prince George’s County—two Maryland jurisdictions that have put forth about $200,000 in funds to represent detained immigrants in their counties—did not include similar exclusion lists.

The CAIR Coalition’s withdrawal request follows a divided council public hearing earlier this month that featured residents speaking fiercely in support and opposition of the legal aid funds.

On Monday, CAIR Coalition supporters rallied in front of Montgomery County Circuit Court to oppose the exclusion list.

George Escobar, the senior director of services at the immigrant rights group CASA, said McCarthy was attempting to “sabotage efforts designed to ensure immigrants receive a fair opportunity to obtain legal counsel in immigrant proceedings.”

Advocates at the rally noted that U.S. citizens receive legal representation in criminal proceedings regardless of the crime they commit, even if they can’t afford an attorney, but immigrants do not have the same right to an attorney in immigration proceedings.

“In the criminal context we don’t make that distinction,” Nick Steiner, an attorney with the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said. “We’ve recognized that the consequences of being denied your liberty for criminal offenses are severe. I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that the consequences in getting deported can also be extremely severe.”

The courthouse rally also drew about a half dozen counter protesters who held signs that read “Support Legal Immigration” and “End MoCo Sanctuary Policies.”

One of the counter protesters, Cheng Tu, a Rockville resident, frequently interrupted the advocates as they spoke.

He said after the rally that he doesn’t want county funds from taxpayers being spent on legal aid for immigrants who may have violated federal law by entering the country illegally.

“This bill should never even be brought out,” Tu said. He said he emigrated to the U.S. from China in 1995 and has lived in Maryland since then. He said it took eight years for him to receive his U.S. citizenship through the legal process. He sees the proposed county policy as violating the rule of law.

In his statement, McCarthy said he’s sympathetic to the motivation that has led the council to want to provide legal aid to immigrants due to the uncertainty facing the immigrant community that has been caused by policies at the federal level. However, he added that he feared allowing persons with criminal convictions to be represented in part thanks to county funds could lead to their immigration attorneys trying to re-litigate crimes his office has already prosecuted.

“The reality is, in order for an individual who is being deported on the basis of a criminal conviction to avoid deportation is to attack the underlying conviction in a collateral proceeding like a post-conviction,” McCarthy said. “What that means is that a conviction fairly and honestly obtained using taxpayer money in Montgomery County would be subject to re-litigation and retrial on matters that the victim thought was long settled.”

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