Harris County approves immigrant legal defense fund proposed by Lina Hidalgo

HOUSTON, Texas -- Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo proposed establishing an immigrant legal defense fund for county residents at the Feb. 25 commissioners court meeting. The court pushed the resolution forth with a 3-2 vote as commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle opposed the motion.

Hidalgo said this program would "inject a measure of fairness into our justice system" for individuals and families who do not have access to legal services.

"I've seen the impact of federal immigration system that is so broken and convoluted that folks are desperate just to have an answer to their case," she said. "We need to make sure that if they don't have a legitimate case, well then, they don't deserve to be here, [but] if they do have one, that they continue to contribute to our economy, and that we're not tearing families apart unnecessarily when they have a legitimate case but no attorney to represent them."

In the resolution submitted for court consideration on Feb. 21, Hidalgo said more than 25% of county residents are foreign-born, and she believes the county overall benefits from its diversity. Approximately 412,000 residents who account for 10% of the county's labor force are undocumented, she said.

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These individuals and families have a significantly higher chance of having successful cases when they have attorneys versus when they are forced to represent themselves, Hidalgo said.

"Our estimate is there are around 18,000 immigrants that reside in Harris County who don't have access to representation, and it would be impossible for the county to represent that enormous number," she said. "But the idea is for this to help us chip away at a big problem that faces our own community because it leads to families being torn apart, and it leads to folks being plucked away from jobs that contribute to our economy and that are necessary to our economy."

Hidalgo said those in need of services would be prioritized based on income levels, and partnerships with area nonprofits could also help support needs. Program costs would vary based on how many individuals are represented and what those community partnerships look like.

The initial proposal involved tasking the Community Services Department with developing the program, but Cagle said he did not believe this was the appropriate decision. Hidalgo agreed to include the County Attorney's Office in the process.

"Putting this issue into that department I believe is the wrong department, [and] I think you should refer somewhere else," Cagle said. "Lastly, Judge, you've heard me say many, many times that I'm not a big fan of us getting involved in federal issues."

Once the Community Services Department and the County Attorney's Office develop and administer funds for the plan, officials will bring a final cost estimate to the Commissioners Court for approval, but Hidalgo said she anticipates the program would cost around $500,000 in its first year.

"Just from a justice and moral standpoint, we know this is the right thing," Hidalgo said. "It's going to take an investment, and we're going to obviously be negotiating with folks to hope that our relatively small investment goes as long a way as it can."

This story was published through our partnership with Community Impact Newspapers.