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LA Justice Letter to LA Board of Supervisors

April 10, 2017

To: Supervisor Hilda Solis, First District
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Second District
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Third District Supervisor Janice Hahn, Fourth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Fifth District

Cc: Members of the Los Angeles City Council; Mayor Eric Garcetti

Re: Revise or Postpone the “LA Justice Fund Client Prioritization and Services” Motion

Dear Supervisor Solis, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Supervisor Keuhl, Supervisor Hahn, and Supervisor Barger,:

We, the undersigned Executive Directors of legal, policy, and direct service organizations, as well as labor, faith, and community leaders, write to express our opposition to the eligibility limitations currently proposed in the “LA Justice Fund Client Prioritization and Services” Motion.

We are heartened that the County and City have made commitments to fund attorneys for our community members facing deportation, and firmly support the creation of the LA Justice Fund. However, we are disappointed by the divisive rhetoric around “criminal” immigrants that has clouded what should have otherwise been a celebrated effort, and which is reflected in the exclusions currently proposed by the “LA Justice Fund Client Prioritization and Services” motion. We feel compelled to write to you to state that we remain firm and united in our conviction that legal representation for individuals in removal proceedings should be truly universal, and must avoid excluding categories of people. Given our positions, and based on our expertise and experience with the immigrant communities we serve, we urge you to revise or postpone your “LA Justice Fund Client Prioritization and Services” motion.

In response to the draconian and inhumane enforcement practices put in place by the new administration, we had hoped—and still hold hope—that the L.A. Justice Fund would be a bold action by the County defending our community members who are at risk. As you are aware, we seek a fully inclusive, universal legal representation program for Los Angeles immigrants, grounded in due process principles. Every person in removal proceedings deserves an attorney. Our position is guided not by politics, but by core principles of dignity, fairness, and justice for all. We all know that the immigration system—which pits unrepresented, often non-English speaking immigrants against trained prosecutors, and in which the chances of winning your case are based less on the merits of your claims than on your ability to pay for an attorney—is not fair. But a program like the one contemplated in the current motion, which categorically excludes certain individuals as “undeserving,” is also not fair. The L.A. Justice Fund should serve to address the unfairness in our immigration system, not replicate it.

For this reason, we strongly oppose your “LA Justice Fund Client Prioritization and Services” motion. It is our understanding that your motion would exclude from services under the Fund any immigrant who has a prior criminal conviction under Section 667.5(c) of the California Penal Code. This exclusion would have no exceptions—that is, your proposal would deny representation to immigrants, even if they have meritorious claims for relief, solely due to prior convictions under Section 667.5(c).

Section 667.5(c) includes commonly charged offenses that encompass a wide range of behavior, including non-violent behavior, some of which result in few or no adverse immigration consequences. Although these offenses may sound serious, the minimum conduct required for a conviction—the standard used in immigration proceedings—is not serious for many of these offenses, and such convictions would not alone make a noncitizen deportable or ineligible for relief. In fact, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center regularly advises defense attorneys to plead to some of the offenses within Section 667.5(c), such as residential burglary, kidnapping, and being in possession of a firearm, precisely because they are considered “immigration-safe” pleas.

For example, felony residential burglary under Penal Code Section 460(a) sounds like a serious offense. However, the California burglary offense punishes behavior such as a door-to-door salesman who sells fake goods or fraudulent insurance, or a guest at a dinner party who intends to steal an object or use a controlled substance. Because a person could be convicted of residential burglary for such minimal behavior, federal courts have held that California residential burglary does not meet the definition of several types of deportable offenses.

Thus, the actual conduct of many immigrants accused of crimes would normally result in a less serious conviction. But trading the severity of the conviction for a plea to an offense that does not bar a client from immigration relief is a common practice known as “pleading up.” Indeed, in California, our attorneys have a legal duty to use this practice. The blanket carve-out based on Section 667.5(c) would place both the immigrants accused of crime and their defense attorneys in an untenable position, having to choose whether to plead to a certain “immigration-safe” plea yet be denied an immigration attorney in subsequent deportation proceedings, or plead to an offense with adverse immigration consequences in order to be eligible for counsel.

Excluding from services individuals with convictions under Section 667.5(c) would leave behind valuable members of our communities, sending them a message that they are not worthy of representation under our County and City Fund, despite having served their sentence and having been deemed rehabilitated under our state penal system. A parent with a decades-old conviction who now provides for and cares for his family in Los Angeles. A mother and victim of horrific domestic violence, who would be returned to her likely death if deported. A young man who has only known the U.S. as his home, living here since he was a child, but has been swept up in our criminal justice system. Veterans, who have proudly served our country, only now to be told that they are not worthy of County or City funds for an attorney to defend them from exile and deportation.

For this last group in particular, it is worth underscoring that the vast majority of our veterans facing deportation are there because of a criminal conviction. Many came to the U.S. as children and have lawful permanent residency. And where lawful permanent residents are placed in removal proceedings, it is almost always as a result of criminal convictions. There are many veterans who thought they became citizens by serving in the U.S. military, only to find out after encounters with the criminal justice system that they were mistaken. In many cases, defense attorneys shared similar misconceptions and failed to adequately advise veterans on the immigration consequences of their pleas, in violation of the right to effective assistance of counsel under both the U.S. and California constitutions. As described in the ACLU of California report, Discharged, Then Discarded, many veterans in removal proceedings lack access to counsel and are deported despite the availability of relief. Denying these individuals access to counsel would deny them a real chance at rebuilding their lives in the country they fought to defend.

Take Private Erasmo Apodaca as an example. Private Apodaca was brought to the United States from Mexico by his parents as a teenager. After becoming a lawful permanent resident and graduating from high school, Private Apodaca enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he served for three years, including during Operation Desert Storm, until his honorable discharge in 1996. Convicted of residential burglary pursuant to Penal Code Section 460(a), he was deported in 1997 after serving his sentence. He has since been separated from his two sons, who were 7 and 8 years old when he was deported. Federal courts have since decided that the crime for which he was deported is not an aggravated felony under immigration law. This example illustrates the pressing need for legal advocates who can represent all immigrants caught up in the criminal and immigration systems.

The exclusions you propose are not only wrong on principle, but they are also impracticable. We know from experience that clients often do not know or understand the details of their criminal records. Imposing a bar of this kind would necessitate a lengthy and expensive intake process, including extensive record-checks. Such an intake process would quickly deplete the Fund—for intake only—and result in fewer clients receiving actual representation overall.

Therefore, an exception that allows for attorneys to represent immigrants for whom relief is available is a necessary safeguard. Such an exception would allow individuals swept up in the breadth of Section 667.5(c) a chance at justice.

Once again, we urge you to commit County funding to establish a program to provide universal legal representation for all immigrants in deportation proceedings, beginning with detained individuals, as other cities like New York and San Francisco have done. Failing that, at a bare minimum, the County should align the Fund eligibility requirements for the L.A. Justice Fund with those endorsed by the Los Angeles City Council Immigration Committee on Thursday, March 30, 2017. Legal services providers must be able to provide representation to immigrants who may have a meritorious claim for relief in immigration court.

We must not fall prey to hateful rhetoric that would divide us and further criminalize our immigrant communities. Fundamental fairness, and our values as Californians and Angelenos, demand that when our community members face imprisonment and separation from their loved ones, they receive the basic and necessary protection of legal representation.

Sincerely,

Hector Villagra
Executive Director
ACLU of Southern California

Senait Admassu
Executive Director
African Communities Public Health Coalition

Nora Phillips, Legal Dir.
Erika Pinheiro, Policy and Technology Dir. Al Otro Lado

Laura Raymond
Campaign Director
Alliance of Community Transit LA

Dean Matsubayashi
Executive Director,
Little Tokyo Service Center

Rev. Zachary Hoover Executive Director LA Voice

Matt Strieker
Executive Director
Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice

Rusty Hicks
Executive Secretary Treasurer
Los Angeles County Labor Federation

Stewart Kwoh
President and Executive Director
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los
Angeles

Opal Tometi
Executive Director
Black Alliance for Just Immigration

Cynthia Buiza
Executive Director
California Immigrant Policy Center

Sandy Valenciano
Statewide Coordinator
California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance

Rev. David K. Farley,
Director of Justice & Compassion Ministries California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church

Martha Arevalo
Executive Director
Central American Resource Center

Rabbi Jonathan Klein
Executive Director
Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice

Angelica Salas
Executive Director
Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights

Alberto Retana
President & Chief Executive Officer
Community Coalition

Hussam Ayloush
Executive Director
Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greater Los Angeles Area

Democratic Socialists of America

Lola Smallwood Cuevas
Founding Director
Los Angeles Black Worker Center

Los Angeles Tenants Union

David Levitus Executive Director Los Angeles Forward

Dave Garcia
Director of Policy & Community Building
Los Angeles LGBT Center

Emily L. Robinson & Marissa Montes
Co-Directors
Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic

Salam Al-Marayati
President
Muslim Public Affairs Council

Pablo Alvarado
Executive Director
National Day Laborer Organizing Network

Marielena Hincapié
Executive Director
National Immigration Law Center

Ameena Qazi
Executive Director
National Lawyers Guild – Los Angeles

Bill Pryzlucki
Executive Director
People Organized for Westside Renewal

Aquilina Soriano-Versoza Executive Director Pilipino Workers Center

Margaret Morrow President & CEO Public Counsel
Mark Anthony Johnson
Director of Health and Wellness
Dignity and Power Now

Isela Gracian
President
East LA Community Corporation

Rick Zbur Executive Director Equality California

Nancy Halpern Ibrahim
Executive Director
Esperanza Community Housing Corporation

Patricia Ortiz
Program Director
Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project

Pastor Kelvin Sauls
Holman United Methodist Church

Maegan Ortiz
Executive Director
Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de
California

Lindsay Toczylowski
Executive Director
Immigrant Defenders Law Center

Suzanne McCormick
Executive Director
Immigration Center for Women and Children

Marcela Hernandez
Deportation Defense Organizer
Immigrant Youth Coalition

Alexandra Suh
Executive Director
Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance

Sissy Trinh
Executive Director
Southeast Asian Community Alliance

Shikha Bhatnagar Executive Director South Asian Network

Cynthia Strathman
Executive Director
Strategic Actions for a Just Economy

Jim Mangia
President & CEO
St. John's Well Child & Family Center

Sandra McNeill
Executive Director
TRUST South LA

Spencer Frei
Organizer UAW 2865

Kent Wong
Executive Director
UCLA Labor Center

Fernando Rejón
Executive Director
Urban Peace Institute

Channa Grace
Executive Director
Women Organizing Resources, Knowledge and Services

Kim McGill
Organizer
Youth Justice Coalition

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