San Antonio to Fund Legal Services For Immigrants, Other Vulnerable Residents

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Jose Edilson Ramirez, 11, and his mother Vilma Yolanda Ramirez, 33, traveled from Guatemala through Mexico and to the US by bus.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

Jose Edilson Ramirez, 11, and his mother Vilma Yolanda Ramirez, 33, traveled from Guatemala through Mexico by bus to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.

The City of San Antonio will use $150,000 of its $1 million emergency fund to pay for legal services for low-income and vulnerable residents, including immigrant communities, if the measure is approved by City Council on Thursday and implemented as planned.

A request for proposal (RFP) will be issued for organizations interested in partnering with the City on the initiative. City staff had worked with St. Mary’s University School of Law on developing a partnership that would take advantage of its established pro-bono program, but Council members opted to instead issue an RFP to open up the contract to other organizations such as Catholic Charities and RAICES that provide similar services.

“St. Mary’s is interested in participating either way,” Assistant City Manager María Villagómez told Council members on Wednesday.

The City would consider an RFP from a collective of organizations that specialize in different legal services concerning immigration, veterans, landlord-tenant disputes, identification recovery for homeless people, and even simple wills, Villagómez said.

The fund is more typically used for natural or economic disasters, but Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who proposed the measure, said the amount of anxiety and pressure that immigrant communities experience in the current political landscape qualifies as an emergency.

As municipalities across Texas grapple with the implications of the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill, which allows police to ask about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain, so do immigrants.

“If we’re confused about all that stuff … [imagine] the sense of anxiety that members of our immigrant community feel,” Saldaña said.

He originally proposed the measure in March, while sanctuary city legislation was being discussed, but long before the bill was approved this week. The sense of urgency, however, was palpable enough in the wake of hundreds of immigrants being released from detention centers seeking refuge in San Antonio in December and sustained anti-immigration messaging from the Trump administration.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) watches closely as candidates make a case for themselves.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) during an event at Palo Alto College.

Councilmen Joe Krier (D9) and Mike Gallagher (D10) support the pursuit of the new program, but cautioned against possible unintended consequences.

“I sure don’t want to volunteer our way into the sanctuary city swamp,” Krier said.

City Attorney Andy Segovia said his office will look into possible legal complications, but he doesn’t anticipate any issues.

This isn’t the first or even second time that the City has directly funded legal assistance, Villagómez told the Rivard Report. In 2016, Council gave $50,000 to Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid Services to provide services to homeless veterans.

The measure is expected to be approved on Thursday along with another $30,000 to fund increased awareness and participation in the City’s Ambassador Program on the Eastside.

These allocations come as part of the City’s mid-year budget review. Every year City Council reviews its current and projected budget, looking for savings and deficits. It’s not abnormal, Villagómez said, for the City to reserve its projected savings in the General Fund just in case things change over the next six months. It’s also not unusual for City Council to use that money to sustain City programing or outside organizations throughout San Antonio.

Download the full presentation given to City Council here.

Last year, Council approved a $375,000 allocation for San Antonio Pets Alive to continue its operations. This year, Council is saving an $8 million General Fund surplus for a rainy day.

The “tremendous uncertainty” of the future of many federally-funded social service caused by President Donald Trump’s 2018 Budget Blueprint that outlines his plans to drastically cut funding is the main reason City Manager Sheryl Sculley recommended that Council hold on to those funds, she said.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley listens to a presentation at City Council B Session at Municipal Plaza Building.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

City Manager Sheryl Sculley listens to the budget presentation.

Federal Budget Cuts Would Affect the ‘Voiceless, Underserved, and Disenfranchised’

Trump’s Blueprint would cut about $18 million in grants that fund a wide range of services for vulnerable populations in San Antonio including infrastructure projects, code enforcement enhancement, emergency family assistance, after school programs, utility assistance for low-income households, support services for seniors, and more.

It would also require the City to pay an outstanding $36.2 million Housing and Urban Development loan with $4.5 million payments each year through 2026.

Councilman Alan Warrick (D2), whose district includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in San Antonio, said he saw a theme emerging throughout these talks.

While the federal government is working against the “voiceless, underserved, and disenfranchised,” the City of San Antonio is working for them, he said.

Texas legislators are also considering bills that would negatively effect San Antonio’s bottom line, including one that would put a cap on property tax revenue the City could collect, which would cost the City’s future budgets hundreds of millions of dollars while saving citizens an average of $2.33 to $4.30 per month.

The proposed “bathroom bill,” which would require individuals to use bathrooms that correspond to the biological sex noted on their birth certificates, died in the House, but its supporters continue to push for similar legislation.

Discriminatory state laws could mean a $411.8 million loss for the San Antonio region’s gross product each year, cost 4,650 jobs, and $11.3 million in local tax revenues, according to an independent report released by Visit San Antonio and San Antonio Area Tourism Council.

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