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Proposed SF legal defense unit for detained undocumented immigrants stalls

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Public Defender Jeff Adachi speaks to the Board of Supervisors Budget Committee in at City Hall on Thursday. (James Chan/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s months-long debate continues over increased funding for legal defense of detained undocumented immigrants through a proposed new unit in the Public Defender’s Office.

The latest clash lover the proposal from Public Defender Jeff Adachi, which was first announced in November, occurred during Thursday’s Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee. After three hours of discussion the committee voted to postpone a decision for at least two weeks.

The setback comes despite supporters’ urgent calls for the funding in the wake of President Donald Trump’s threats to mass deport undocumented immigrants.

While Mayor Ed Lee and the board had, post Trump’s election, approved a $1.5 million boost in legal defense for nonprofits in the current fiscal year, immigration advocates and Adachi argue San Francisco should take further steps to create a special defense unit in his office to handle cases of those immigrants detained and facing deportation in immigration court.

Adachi received most of the challenging questions from committee member Supervisor Katy Tang, who questioned among those detained who were actually San Francisco residents and whether the defense couldn’t be handled with existing resources.

Tang also pushed back on suggestions that San Francisco wasn’t investing enough in the immigrant community. “We are spending $6.8 million on an ongoing basis, so to criticize us for being conservative with our budget I think is absolutely unfair,” Tang said. That total amount is for legal defense, education and outreach services.

Adachi said that the issue of providing legal defense for those detained was actually a conservation that began a year ago, prior to Trump’s election. Of the approximately 1,500 immigrants detained during their deportation proceedings last year, an estimated 67 percent or 1,005 did not have legal representation, of which an unknown subset are San Francisco residents. San Francisco’s immigration court handles cases from around Northern California.

“This is a crisis that has existed for a while and we are trying to address it before it gets worse,” Adachi said. “We know that it is going to get worse.”

The initial request was for 17 new positions, of which 10 would be attorneys, which would cost $2.5 million annually. Each attorney could handle 40 to 60 cases annually or a total of up 600. Adachi said nonprofits could handle up to 80.

The hearing also provided lawmakers with more understanding of how immigration defense occurs. Adachi said that currently his office doesn’t represent detained undocumented immigrants unless they were former clients and end up there.

“This would expand the representation to all people who are being detained in immigration court,” Adachi said. “We would staff each of the courtrooms with an attorney for that purpose.”

Nonprofits that received the legal funding boost supported Adachi during Thursday’s hearing.

Ana Herrera, managing attorney for the nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services, said the most robust legal services should be provided and that means the Public Defender’s Office should be part of it. “The public defender model provides high-quality, high volume defense and that is the kind of model we need against Trump’s high volume, high detention, high deportation machine,” Herrera said.

Niloufar Khonsari, executive director of Pangea legal services, said, “We couldn’t be doing this work alone. The need is far too great to be able to serve everybody we want to and need to represent.” She noted it was a model that New York City successfully employs.

Supervisor Sandra Fewer, who took office in January, had called for the hearing on the proposal. Not a voting member, Fewer appealed to the committee to decrease the postponement one week or expedite its path to the board after two weeks, but both requests were denied by the committee, which is chaired by Supervisor Malia Cohen.

Cohen seemed to suggest that she was open to adding at least some of the positions Adachi asked for. “I don’t really know what that number is,” Cohen said. “I don’t think we have the magic number just yet.”

Adachi said there were suggestions The City should only fund defense for detained residents but he blasted that concept. “That would be incredibly cruel,” Adachi said.

When asked by the San Francisco Examiner about Fewer’s proposal Tuesday the mayor spoke about his disinclination to fund new efforts in the middle of a fiscal year, although he noted that he has made some exceptions including with the immigration defense boost for nonprofits.

“That’s not chump change. That’s real solid commitment,” the mayor said. But he spoke about the need of “bracing for things we don’t know about.”

“I am also going to save money for things we don’t know about,” the mayor said.

The mayor, however, did promise to “continue that dialogue” over Adachi’s proposal.

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