Contra Costa County won’t expand immigrants’ legal defense

Contra Costa County won’t expand a program that offers free legal representation to immigrants facing the threat of deportation.

In a 3-2 vote, the county Board of Supervisors held off giving $1.8 million to Stand Together Contra Costa, a program in the public defender’s office that had sought to add three full-time attorneys, three legal assistants and other services.

In recent years, the county has eased off its relationship with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement despite Sheriff David Livingston’s vocal resistance to the shifting political belief that undocumented immigration is not criminal behavior.

At an annual budget hearing earlier this year, the supervisors used federal COVID-19 money to double the budget of a program that, in part, offers health care to undocumented immigrants. But they didn’t leave any room for providing legal defense against deportation.

And despite Public Defender Ellen McDonnell’s pitch at a meeting Tuesday for more money right away, the supervisors decided not to go out of their way to find new funds and instead return to the discussion next spring when budget talks come back around.

“Just as we do not defend criminals in federal criminal courts, we should not be taking this role as the county public defender’s office,” Supervisor Candace Andersen said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I would prefer to see Stand Together created as a nonprofit in the community, because I believe they would be able to do a lot more fundraising through charitable contributions,” she added.

Ray Chavez/staff archives"I think it's important that landlords don't see this as an indefinite process," said Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors Chair Candace Andersen, seen previously above in Martinez, on the issue of extending the <a href=county‘s COVID-19 emergency ordinance protecting renters from eviction after the county’s sheltering order is lifted and extending the grace period for paying back rent. Contra Costa County’s temporary ban on evictions of residential and commercial tenants affected by the pandemic will continue through part of the summer, but county supervisors are tightening the rules on who is eligible for those protections. Andersen represents District 2, which includes Danville, Alamo, Lafayette and other cities.” width=”4708″ data-sizes=”auto” src=”″ srcset=” 620w, 780w, 810w, 1280w, 1860w”/>
Ray Chavez/staff archivesContra Costa County Supervisor Candace Andersen speaks about the county’s COVID-19 emergency ordinance protecting renters from eviction on May 26, 2020.

Earlier, Supervisors John Gioia and Federal Glover, who voted against Andersen’s motion to punt funding talks to next spring, had advocated trying to find the additional funds well before then.

For the past several years, Contra Costa has been among a number of California counties, including Alameda, Santa Clara and San Francisco, whose public defender‘s offices take on pro bono cases for immigrants who were detained for deportation.

Of those counties, both Contra Costa and San Francisco offer such legal services without any restrictions, while the other two choose to represent only those immigrants who are current or former clients of their public defender’s offices.

About 80% of the undocumented immigrants in Contra Costa County are seeking asylum, often from Central American countries like El Salvador where gang warfare among drug cartels is rampant, McDonnell said at the meeting.

“For them, these (asylum) claims are about persecution in their home country,” she said, “They’re about, really, life or death for these individuals that have fled in very dire circumstances, often children, many of them very young.”

At large, the county currently has 8,241 residents with pending deportation cases, 85% of whom don’t have an attorney when they’re first placed in hearings, according to public defender’s office data.

And of the 163 clients represented by Stand Together Contra Costa, only 17% have prior criminal convictions and 9% have previously been represented by the public defender’s office, per data.

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