By Mia Cathell and Joel Lau
Mayor Martin Walsh’s office announced Saturday that the proposed 2020 fiscal year budget will allocate $50,000 to support the Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund, which helps fund education and legal services for Boston’s immigrant communities.
Walsh said in a City press release that the defense fund, established in 2017, is a statement of Boston’s values and that immigrants deserve access to information about their rights.
“I am proud to include City funds in the FY2020 Budget to further the success demonstrated during the early stages of the program,” Walsh said in the press release, “and I thank those who have invested in our City’s wellbeing.”
The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute launched a two-year pilot program of the defense fund in 2017, which was supposed to end in Dec. 2019, according to the press release.
However, the $50,000 dollars allocated by Walsh would “jumpstart” the defense fund’s third year by paying for counsel for approximately 30 Boston immigration cases, according to the press release.
MLRI immigration attorney Deirdre Giblin said while immigrants have a right to legal representation, the government is not required to provide a court-appointed lawyer. Since many immigrants lack the finances to hire their own counsel, Giblin said, they end up without legal aid.
Giblin said Walsh spearheaded the creation of the defense fund in order to gather private donations that would ultimately help pay for immigrant’s legal fees.
“Nonprofits are traditionally underfunded,” Giblin said, “and immigration communities are typically underserved.”
The defense fund began in the Fall of 2017 with $1 million initially awarded to five legal services providers and six non-profit community partners in the Greater Boston Area, according to the City’s press release.
Giblin said while the MLRI mainly advises non-profits on defending immigrants in the courts, her organization also carries out impact litigation, which seeks to change larger immigration policies on issues such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and asylum through court decisions. Impact legislation, also known as test cases, refers to a lawsuit brought forward for in order to change specific policies.
As for the City of Boston, Giblin said Walsh’s administration has been a “great leader” in the area of immigrant rights.
“I think there’s other cities that are also providing or starting to provide more support [for immigrants],” Giblin said, “which I think the $50,000 is a reflection that cities themselves realize how important it is to support their immigrant community,”
Giblin said the City’s expenditures for the coming fiscal year are a “great down payment” for “universal representation,” since immigrants do not have access to pro bono legal services.
“In the criminal system, when someone is detained and is awaiting their hearing or their trial, they have a court-appointed counsel, which is publicly funded,” Giblin said. “That’s not privately funded. There’s no similarity for immigrants who are detained.”
Giblin wrote in an email that local philanthropic, corporate and legal partners have contributed to the fund’s success, including The Barr Foundation, The Boston Foundation, The Fish Family Foundation, Foley Hoag LLP, The Herman and Frieda L. Miller Foundation, and The Klarman Family Foundation.
Non-profits associated with the defense fund, Giblin wrote, include the Brazilian Workers Center, Catholic Social Services of Fall River, Centro Presente, Chelsea Collaborative and Essex County Community Organization.
MLAC’s website states that Greater Boston is home to over 800,000 immigrant and refugee residents, including an estimated 180,000 individuals without immigration status who may need deportation defense.
Detained immigrants who have access to legal representation are five-and-a-half times more likely to be granted some form of relief by the court, according to the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.
Dana Borkun, 27, of Brookline, said she appreciates Walsh’s contribution to the defense fund.
“I just think it’s really hard to get a lawyer,” Borkun said. “They’re really expensive. It’s very easy to fall into traps legally. I just don’t feel like there is adequate [legal] representation.”
Jan Walker, a 67-year-old Cambridge resident, said the media plays a significant role in advancing xenophobia.
“I’m so deluged with the media stuff that flies around, I’m not sure I could even articulate our official [immigration] policy as it is at this point,” Walker said. “But I am 100 percent sure that the balance of media coverage is imbalanced. There are parties stirring anti-immigrant sentiments. And that’s showing up in the media.”
Victor Lun, 21, of Brookline, said immigrants need more support in the face of President Donald Trump’s administration.
“Because of what Donald Trump’s agendas are,” Lun said, “[The government] is probably doing a disservice to immigrants. They deserve much better treatment”