LOS ANGELES (CN) — Many regard Los Angeles as one of the bellwethers in the fight against the Trump administration's immigration enforcement policies. But even as political leaders have moved to protect their immigrant communities, some groups are fighting a proposed carve-out that would exclude people with criminal convictions from a proposed legal fund.
Thirty-five-year-old Phal Sok was born in a Thai migrant camp and was still a baby when his Cambodian parents brought him to America. Convicted at 17 of armed robbery he encapsulates a fight against a carve-out to the proposed $10 million L.A. Justice Fund that would bar immigrants with criminal histories from receiving help in removal and deportation proceedings, according to the ACLU and other groups.
First District Supervisor Hilda Solis and Fourth District Supervisor Janice Hahn’s motion on the “L.A. Justice Fund Client Prioritization and Services” was due for a vote Tuesday but was taken off the agenda after civil rights groups sharply criticized the move.
Solis said in an email that she had asked the board to refer the motion back to her office before a vote. The motion called for the county to send its first $1 million to the fund.
“We know that the county’s $1 million will only go so far, at best funding representation for 200 people. While I would have preferred to vote and finalize the funding, I referred the item back to allow more time for the board to achieve consensus,” Solis wrote in an email.
Speaking outside the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration before the board meeting, Sok said he is facing deportation and urged the county's political leaders to provide universal representation under the fund instead of excluding those with convictions.
Sok was convicted of armed robbery in 1999 after his father died. He said he was 16 when he lost his father and ended up in trouble after he was forced onto the streets. He was released in 2015 and is facing removal proceedings and deportation.
“Some people have criminal convictions, but some people do change,” Sok said in an interview. "A blanket policy when you just say, ‘There are no exceptions, we're just not going to represent you,’ I think that's very unfair.”
On Monday, the ACLU Southern California and other groups sent the five-member Board of Supervisors a letter urging the county to revise the motion. It aligns the L.A. Justice Fund with the state’s expanded due process bill, SB 6, which excludes violent felons, according to Solis’ spokeswoman Jessie Gomez.
ACLU staff attorney Carmen Iguina said that everyone deserves representation in a deportation system that is stacked in favor of prosecutors.
“Everyone deserves a fair process. Due process does not create exceptions, does not make a judgment as to who is worthy, who is unworthy. It’s a very basic principal. We're not trying talk here about who deserves to stay and who deserves to go. That’s a question that’s left to the immigration judge and immigration laws,” she said.
In the April 10 letter to supervisors, more than 40 groups and labor, faith and community leaders welcomed the creation of the L.A. Justice Fund but voiced concern that heated rhetoric surrounding criminally convicted immigrants would taint the process.
“The L.A. Justice Fund should serve to address the unfairness in our immigration system, not replicate it,” the 6-page letter states.
The “L.A. Justice Fund Client Prioritization and Services” motion would exclude funds for immigrants with a criminal conviction under Section 667.5 (c) of the California Penal Code, according to the groups’ letter. The penal code includes crimes that sometimes are not as serious as they might first appear, according to the letter.
Under California law a crime known as felony residential burglary can apply to a door-to-door salesman who sales bogus goods or fraudulent services, or an invited guest at a party who has the intention of stealing property, the letter says.
“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,” according to the letter.
Iguina said that ACLU SoCal welcomed the decision to postpone the motion and said the groups hope the county will follow New York and San Francisco, which provide universal representation through similar legal funds.
“On a more fundamental level we also don't believe that we should be reinforcing this rhetoric that there are some immigrants who are good, some immigrants who are bad, some immigrants who are worthy and some immigrants who are unworthy,” she said.
Alternatively, the groups would like the county to follow Los Angeles City Council Immigration Committee which last week proposed a program under the L.A. Justice Fund that would exclude immigrants convicted under the penal code but make exceptions where a legal service provider believes a person has a “meritorious” claim for relief.
On Tuesday the board considered other protections for immigrants against federal enforcement actions in “sensitive locations” such as schools, courthouses and hospitals, and creation of an Immigration Protection and Advancement Task Force.
Based on 2014 estimates, the Pew Research Center found there 375,000 unauthorized immigrants in the city of Los Angeles and 1 million in the metro areas of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Anaheim. Since taking office, President Donald Trump has directed federal immigrations agents to target 11 million people in the country illegally for arrest and deportation. In Nogales, Arizona on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterated that message, with some of the harshest language yet on immigration.
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