Why now, more than ever, Boston needs an Immigrant Defense Fund

The Boston City Council is considering the creation of a fund to help residents going through immigration-related legal proceedings. MIRA’s Sarang Sekhavat explains why it’s so crucial.


MIRA Federal Policy Director Sarang Sekhavat addresses the Boston City Council. Click to see video of the hearing.

More than a quarter of Boston’s residents were born in another country. And while the vast majority are now U.S. citizens or green card or visa holders, many have family members who are undocumented – and any non-citizens could face deportation proceedings if they run afoul of the law, potentially even just for a misdemeanor.

In February, recognizing that under the Trump administration, immigrants will face much harsher treatment than under President Obama, Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson proposed creating a city-sponsored defense fund to support legal challenges involving immigrants.

On Monday, April 10, the City Council’s Committee on Healthy Women, Families & Communities held a hearing on the proposal (watch the video). Sarang Sekhavat, MIRA’s federal policy director, testified in support of the fund. What follows is a lightly edited version of his testimony.

The Boston City Council has been very responsive in the past to the needs of our city’s immigrant communities, which, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, make up 27% of our population. We deeply appreciate this Council’s unanimous vote in 2014 to pass the much-needed Boston Trust Act, and hope you will view the Immigrant Defense Fund with the same gravity.

The 2016 presidential election resulted in a major upheaval in the way this country approaches the enforcement of civil immigration law. Although President Obama had deported more individuals than any prior president – earning him the nickname among advocates of “Deporter-in-Chief” – the new administration has promised to drastically increase both the detaining of individuals on civil immigration charges and the number of deportations.

Not only are they pushing for funding for 5,000 more U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, 10,000 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, and a drastic expansion of detention space – they have also been asking local law enforcement agencies in our state for use of their jails to detain immigrants.

More worryingly, the Trump administration, despite promises to go after so-called “bad hombres”, has made clear through both executive order and implementation memos, that it has rescinded any and all priorities for enforcement.

Secretary John Kelly recently admitted to U.S. Senators that the Department of Homeland Security will go after anyone who is undocumented. Indeed, his February 17 memo, “Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest,” even rescinded an Obama administration memo that encouraged ICE to exercise prosecutorial discretion for victims and witnesses of crimes.

We are already seeing the devastating impact of this elimination of priorities here in Massachusetts, as multiple state residents with no criminal record have been taken for deportation when they arrived for green card interviews with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The increase in immigration enforcement, and particularly the use of civil detention, will have a destructive effect on communities throughout Boston. Studies show that nationally, immigrant detainees who have no lawyer have a 4% chance of success in beating deportation.  With a lawyer, the chances of success increase dramatically, to 28%. 

A local study shows that in Boston, only 4% of immigrants without a lawyer who faced deportation were able to win their cases. In stark contrast, people with lawyers were granted relief from deportation in 49% of these cases over the same time period. Clearly access to legal representation can make all of the difference in their cases and their lives.

The negative impacts of deportation are not confined only to those individuals who are deported, but rather are borne also by their families, their employers, and by the state. On average, 492 U.S. citizen children in Boston lose a parent to detention and deportation every year. The devastation to these children should be obvious, as they lose critical emotional and financial support at a key time of their development. But the impact goes far beyond that. Taxpayers foot the bill when children and families lose a primary breadwinner and are forced to turn to public safety net programs to survive.

Massachusetts pays over $200,000 in annual foster care related expenses for U.S. citizen children separated from their parents as a result of detention and deportation. The state could save $48,000 in yearly foster-care related expenses if these parents had an immigration lawyer to defend against deportation. Adding in other costs, such as education and healthcare costs, the state could save $290,000 a year if these parents had immigration attorneys.

The negative impacts of deportation would cause other financial problems for the Commonwealth. The undocumented population constitutes 3.4% of our state’s workforce, and employers would save $1.4 million in turnover and related costs if detained immigrants had an attorney for their civil immigration cases. Undocumented immigrants contribute nearly $200 million in state and local taxes, including sales, income, and property taxes. The removal of all undocumented immigrants from our state would cost us $12 billion in economic activity and over 55,000 jobs.

The solution for our city is the creation on an Immigrant Defense Fund for the universal representation of indigent immigration detainees. This would provide an attorney for anyone in civil immigration detention and not able to afford legal representation.

It would not be a novel move. New York City piloted such a project in 2013, and its success has been so impressive that funding was just included in the state budget, ensuring that no detained immigrant in the state will go without legal representation in civil immigration proceedings.

Here in Boston, we have a moral imperative to protect our residents, our families, and our communities from the cruel impact that detention and deportation have on them. We have a chance not only to do the right thing, but also to send a signal to the rest of the country that we will not sit back and watch the destructive policies of the new administration in Washington wreak havoc on our communities.