With the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump just weeks away, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agreed to launch multiple new efforts to defend the county's immigrant population and mitigate any action from Washington that could jeopardize its values and policies regarding health care, civil rights, housing and the environment.
In a unanimous decision, board members agreed to create a new plan to designed to provide legal services and representation to undocumented immigrants who may be facing deportation proceedings when Trump takes office on Jan. 20. The concern, according to the staff report, is that Trump and his cabinet selections so far have "publicly and explicitly announced an intent to execute mass deportation" of up to 11 million immigrants in the United States.
The language is particularly alarming for Santa Clara County, where 38 percent of the residents are foreign-born, and 50 percent of households speak a language other than English in the home, Supervisor Cindy Chavez said at the Dec. 6 meeting.
"A great deal of our economic prosperity and our public safety is rooted on having a community where people feel safe and welcome," Chavez said. "I've talked to people who have been here for years, who are immigrants and vital parts of our community, who are frightened about what this means for their families."
The county is expected to take a leadership role in coordinating pro bono legal representation to residents facing deportation, working with nonprofit organizations to make sure privately-funded legal representation is available to supplement county efforts. This new county-funded program is not intended to be used by residents who are charged with crimes not related to immigration, and the hope is that the effort will come at low or no cost to the public.
County Executive Jeffrey Smith emphasized that the county's actions are not intended to sidestep federal immigration law, and instead reinforces the protections under the 14th Amendment guaranteeing that residents, regardless of status, are given equal protections under the law.
"We're envisioning making sure that nobody loses their rights or their due process, or has any infringement on their health and welfare that is not within the consistency of the Constitution," Smith said.
Having representation makes a big difference. Lisa Weissman-Ward, a lecturer at Stanford's Immigrants' Rights Clinic, said she authored a report on 2014 that found two-thirds of detained immigrants have no legal representation, and without legal representation they had only an 11 percent chance of prevailing in court. By comparison, 83 percent of detained immigrations with legal representation from local Bay Area nonprofits were successful in avoiding deportation.
The number of immigrants facing deportation without legal representation is also expected to go up if the Trump administration steps up enforcement. Ilyce Shugall, the directing attorney at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, told supervisors that there's already a backlog of 36,400 cases in San Francisco's immigration court for non-detained immigrations, delaying proceedings by as much as five years. With the new administration coming in, Shugall expects that the backlog is going to get worse, meaning fewer people will be represented by lawyers.
Richard Konda, the executive director of Asian Law Alliance, said there are an estimated 180,000 undocumented immigrants in the county, from Palo Alto to Gilroy, most of whom have families and deep roots in the community. It's the only area of American law, he said, that empowers the government to lock people up and force them to fight against trained government attorneys without legal assistance.
"Now more than ever, Santa Clara County must fortify its commitment... and ensure that everyone is armed with information to protect themselves and have a fair chance at their deportation case," Konda said.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian said he has struggled to sort out how to move forward in a time of great uncertainty, and that his approach is to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. He said the county needs to act fast because of the potential for "overzealous" enforcement on the part of the Trump administration, and the fact that the president-elect uses phrases like "day one" and "first 100 days" regarding his plans.
Supervisor Dave Cortese said much of the focus has been on Latino immigrants, but the county has to step up its protection for immigrants irrespective of ethnicity and documentation. He pointed out that plenty of immigrants on work visas, even if they've done everything right, may be at risk because of "breakdowns in bureaucracies" over the years.
"Our approach is going to be the full spectrum on this," he said.
In addition to legal protection for immigrants, county supervisors also voted to create a new Federal Legislative Advocacy Task Force, which will be designed to evaluate and analyze changes in federal policies that might have a major effect on Santa Clara County. Top concerns in the staff report include the potential repeal of Obamacare, which would affect many residents relying on Covered California for health care, as well as changes in infrastructure investments that could affect county housing and transportation projects that rely on federal dollars for support. Simitian pointed out that the selection of Ben Carson as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, for example, could have major implications on the $950 Measure A housing bond that Santa Clara County voters passed last month.
The task force will be chaired by Simitian, and will include Cortese, and U.S. Representatives Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo and Ro Khanna.
Supervisors also voted unanimously to kick off strategic plans aimed at addressing any legal issues that the county faces from the incoming Trump administration, making sure the county has a seat at the table as Washington considers changes in health care, housing and social services, and protects its funding streams from the federal government.