By Maggie Lee
Atlanta is setting aside $150,000 for legal defense for people who are accused of running afoul of federal immigration law under a new program with the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.
“Atlanta is proud to be a welcoming city that stands up for the civil and human rights of every person. I am proud to join the launch of the Safe Cities Network and offer — for the first time in our city’s history — legal defense to individuals facing deportation,” said Mayor Kasim Reed in a written statement on Thursday.
Atlanta City Council voted to approve a budget amendment in June which allocated $150,000 from the general fund for the program, according to a Reed spokeswoman.
Of these funds, $100,000 goes to the Vera Institute as the city’s legal services provider. Vera matched an additional $100,000 in funding. And $50,000 goes to the Tahirih Justice Center, which specializes in providing legal services to women and girls fleeing violence.
The city is not yet able to say how many clients they expect to serve, or how the clients will request the service. The spokeswoman said those details will be available at a launch of the initiative later this year.
Vera will also provide technical expertise and support, like helping to find, identify and train the legal service providers.
David Schaefer, managing director for advocacy at the Latin American Association, said the demand is high for legal services among people facing deportation.
People are not guaranteed the right to an attorney in Immigration Court.
Atlanta’s announcement “is a good thing, it’s a good thing for sure. There’s so much need right now. I can’t tell you how much need there is right now.”
He said the deal highlights the willpower of the city of Atlanta to be a part of the conversation about people adjusting their immigration status, of people being a part of the community. He said it also puts a spotlight on the need for legal services.
“Even if it’s a candle, it’s a very dark place, it’s a very dark room here in Georgia,” Schaefer said.
Atlanta’s Immigration Court denies asylum applications more often than other courts and sets bonds above the national average, according to seven weeks of research by Emory University law students in 2016. The school and the Southern Poverty Law Center have called for an investigation into the court, claiming some judges have expressed prejudice and hostility toward people in court.
There are also several places where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds people in Georgia: Stewart Detention Center, Irwin County Detention Center, and Atlanta’s own city jail. Critics have called for the closure of all three, saying detainees are subject to poor medical treatment, deplorable health conditions and misuse of isolation.
Atlanta’s the only Deep South city to be a part of the new Safe Cities Network. Vera, headquartered in New York City, advocates for improvements to justice systems in the interest of fairness, safety and strengthened communities.
Folks who go with a lawyer into deportation proceedings increases the chances that they will establish a right to remain, according to Vera research.
“Common sense immigration policies like those embodied by the SAFE Cities Network ensure that all people, regardless of background, income, and history, are guaranteed a fair day in court. Not only does such public funding for indigent immigrants facing deportation maintain trust within our communities, it ultimately increases public safety and keeps deserving families together,” said Vera President Nicholas Turner, in a press release.
Updated with comments from David Schaefer