How Has This Public-Private Effort to Defend L.A.’s Immigrants Shaped Up?

An immigrant rights marcher in los angeles. MattGush/shutterstock

An immigrant rights marcher in los angeles. MattGush/shutterstock

As the Trump administration continues its pressure campaign against undocumented immigrants, one common philanthropic response has been to provide legal aid to those facing deportation. Without a lawyer, immigrants challenging their detention face very long odds. Representation can boost their chances of success fivefold. But despite the strategy’s effectiveness, immigrants still face a huge dearth of legal services as the sheer scale of need outpaces available resources.

Local grantmaking initiatives like the L.A. Justice Fund (LAJF) have emerged to offset that gap, beginning in the early period of Donald Trump’s presidency. As we reported at the time, LAJF is a public-private partnership joining the forces of Los Angeles County, the City of Los Angeles, the Weingart Foundation and the California Community Foundation (CCF). In a county where immigrants and their children make up over 50 percent of the population, LAJF quickly deployed $7.4 million to 17 local nonprofits providing legal services to people facing detention and deportation. The fund covered legal expenses for nearly 300 people through the end of 2018, and helped grantees retain 24 immigration attorneys and train 50 legal professionals in removal defense. 

Public-Private Ambitions

A diverse array of nonprofits have received funding. Some have primary missions to support new arrivals, like the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights and the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. Others are associated with particular populations, like Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Still others concentrate on capacity building and the training of legal professionals, such as the Loyola Immigrant Justice Legal Clinic and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.

According to Rosie Arroyo, a senior program officer at CCF, the effort was designed as a pilot for future funding, which may materialize soon. CCF and Weingart’s initial support, totaling about $5 million, has funded infrastructure and capacity building, and will fund the program for another year. From there, city and county of L.A. will decide whether to allocate additional funding. Meanwhile, LAJF’s philanthropic partners want to broadcast results and secure more support where possible. “We believe philanthropy’s role is to help take the initial risk, incubate the idea and help evaluate the innovation,” Arroyo said. “Then we can leverage those insights with the major impact public dollars and infrastructure can have.”

Bringing public resources into play is a popular strategy right now for immigrant advocates chafing at the limitations of philanthropic support. In addition to expanding the overall level of funding available, public-private partnerships can lend political firepower to the idea that cities should protect their immigrant communities. That’s one goal, for instance, of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Network, which is incubating public-private immigrant defense projects in cities nationwide with support from funders like Kresge, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, JPB, Joyce, Surdna and OSF.

Among a bunch of California funders that stepped up in a big way for immigrants following the 2016 election, CCF contends that the immigrant community—including L.A. County’s 900,000 undocumented immigrants—plays a key role in southern California’s economy and should be integrated into the civic fabric of the region. For the most part, major local funders and public sector leaders in L.A. share that view. So does California’s Democrat-dominated state government.

But the same isn’t true in other places with large immigrant populations. In red states and places with mixed politics, community funders and local leaders have to be much more circumspect in how they treat immigration. And even in Los Angeles, restrictions limit who can benefit from the public funding allocated to LAJF. Immigrants accused of crimes including violent felonies, human trafficking and domestic violence aren’t eligible for representation through the fund in the absence of extenuating circumstances. 

That might seem like good sense, but it goes against the “universal representation” model espoused by places like the Vera Institute (which is, by the way, an LAJF grantee handling data analysis). In part to link its immigrant defense work with a wider critique of mass incarceration, Vera encourages its SAFE Network partners to support the right to representation for all immigrants, regardless of criminal status. But as LAJF’s experience shows, what’s preferable for national advocates isn’t always possible on the ground, especially when public budgets enter volatile political territory. 

Where the Money Goes

For the most part, LAJF’s public funding pays for direct legal representation while philanthropic support from CCF and Weingart fund capacity building, training and data collection. According to Daranee Petsod, president of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR), that second component is crucial. LAJF “strategically uses philanthropic dollars to expand and strengthen the immigration legal services infrastructure,” she said. “It has also created shared work spaces to facilitate information and resource sharing, strategizing and collaboration among legal defenders in this extremely complex and high-stakes area of law.”

It remains to be seen whether the city and county of L.A. will expand their support for LAJF beyond an initial investment. Meanwhile, we’re likely to see continued immigrant advocacy funding from regional funders engaged in the issue—CCF, Weingart, the California Endowment, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, and the James Irvine Foundation among them.

But the challenge is not only to prop up “a critical safety net infrastructure” of nonprofit legal service providers, as Arroyo put it, but also work toward systemic change. Getting local governments on board is a good way to solidify a national movement for immigrant rights. But at the same time, most of today’s most pressing threats to immigrants stem from federal policy, an arena where local work can have only an indirect effect.