Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
During a budget discussion at City Council Wednesday, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) asked the city manager and staff to look for funding to provide legal defense for immigrants and refugees.
President Donald Trump's recent executive orders, which expand the authority of immigration enforcement officers and the definition of "criminal," call for more detentions and quicker deportations of undocumented individuals living in the United States.
Organizations like Catholic Charities and RAICES, a nonprofit that offers legal services to immigrants, are experiencing a surge in clientele due to the recent political climate, Saldaña said, "but that's not necessarily the case with their budgets.
"This is not something we prepared for when we were putting our budget together in September, but it's a need and we are in the wake of that storm," said Saldaña, comparing the situation of the local immigrant community to the recent touchdown of tornadoes that devastated Northside communities.
"What I'm suggesting is that perhaps the City recognize that we're in times of emergency. People that are bearing the brunt of this storm are folks who are living in our community as immigrants or those Spanish speakers who have family members as immigrants."
Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3), Shirley Gonzales (D5), and Roberto Treviño (D1) Wednesday voiced support for continued conversation on the topic.
While the budget office is predicting a slight surplus in the first quarter, City Manager Sheryl Sculley said, the recent tornadoes have likely drained the $1 million contingency fund and there are several budgetary unknowns about the months ahead.
However, Saldaña feels there is enough Council support to move the conversation forward without a Council Consideration Request.
"This would be an adjustment in the budget," Saldaña told the Rivard Report during a phone interview Thursday. "It would go in almost like an emergency funding opportunity ... We are ahead of projections in our income and revenue from CPS as well as sales tax if we look at the first three months. That's where we would be targeting our City manager to look for availability of funds."
Several school districts have requested legal presentations, Saldaña said, and many immigrants have a lot of questions.
"I asked that we set aside dollars for a grant for our community so that organizations [that provide legal aid] can apply," Saldaña said. "This would be expedited, more than an RFP or a grant due to sensitivity of time. The amount of [money] is a question mark, but I hope its in the six figures, due to the need and demand in the community."
According to RAICES Associate Executive Director Justin Tullius, vulnerable individuals are living in a state of terror, and many of them have no idea of the rights they have.
"With the new priorities of the administration, almost any undocumented person is a priority for detention and deportation," Tullius told the Rivard Report Thursday. "It's critical for individuals to have access to representation and know their rights so they can have due process in court."
RAICES is encouraging anyone who is a refugee or an immigrant to come to them and see an attorney in order to ask legal questions, explore relief opportunities, learn what to do if ICE officials show up at their door, and figure out a safety plan for their families in case they get deported.
"Our waiting room is so busy that people are bringing lawn chairs and sitting outside our offices," RAICES Policy Director Amy Fischer said. "The immigrant community in San Antonio is under attack right now and our resources are severely limited. This is not just a conversation of a lack of resources. [City Council members] are tasked to fill the needs of their community and they should see this as their responsibility."
Other cities around the country are stepping up to provide legal funds, Fischer said, as a way of protecting the immigrant residents in their communities.
"New York City has a program where they provide legal defense for people in the immigrant justice system to have right to an attorney," Fischer said, "and since the election of Donald Trump, the D.C. mayor has committed to half a million dollars of legal defense funds."
On Wednesday, COPS/Metro Alliance put together a "Know Your Rights" event where close to 100 people showed up and only one lawyer was available to field questions, Saldaña said.
"Many people are left in the dark when it comes to next steps," Saldaña said. "It's one thing to go to a tía or compadre, but it's another thing to talk to a lawyer that knows immigration law."
For Saldaña this is a personal issue as well.
"This is something the City Council needs to act on quickly," he said. "As someone whose father was able to become an American citizen in the early '90s due to low cost legal defense and attorneys ... that may be the only reason I'm a City Councilman.
"Message matters, and while the current message from the federal and state government is hostile, the city must stand with our immigrant community. Legal defense and education provides a light in these dark times for families."