HOUSTON - Harris County Commissioner's Court voted to approve two measures to help immigrants needing legal representation.
On Tuesday, the court voted unanimously in favor of $500,000 for immigrants who are victims of crimes such as human trafficking and domestic violence.
The court also voted three to two in favor of using more than $2,000,000 of tax dollars to establish the Immigrant Legal Services Fund Program for people in deportation proceedings for two years. County Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia voted for the program.
Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack opposed it. They believe the county should not get involved in the legal defense of immigrants.
However, those in favor of the program argue immigrants should have access to legal representation like in the criminal justice system.
"One of the bedrocks of the American system is justice and due process and in the immigration court system there is none," said Andrea Guttin, Legal Director for Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative. "If you don't have an attorney, you're going up against a government-appointed lawyer with the most complex laws in the country similar to the complexity of tax laws with a chaos of traffic court and death penalty consequences."
Guttin adds immigrants who have an attorney are more than 10 times more likely to win their cases and remain in the United States.
"69% of people do not have a lawyer and so their cases can be fast-tracked, there can be breakdowns of justice, and no one will know," she said.
Guttin says other major cities like Atlanta and Austin have similar programs for immigrants in detention.
She points to a new report by her organization that highlights the economic and social impacts of detention and deportation in the Houston area.
The report found in 2018, more than 6,600 Houston and Harris County residents were deported. That, they found, resulted in a loss of $133 million in spending power and nearly $8 million in lost state and local taxes.
Guttin says the deportations are not only of undocumented immigrants but also people with temporary status and lawful permanent residency.
"People can be deported after they are lawful permanent residents and they have a right to work in the United States. It's not just undocumented people who are deported," Guttin explained. "Through our Deportation Defense Houston Project, we've had clients who were in deportation proceedings but they had a claim to U.S. citizenship."