City Council Votes to Fund Immigration Legal Fees

Dec 18, 2016

Half a dozen posters depicting that British hit band the Beatles color the walls of Justin Estep’s office on Rutherford Lane in North Austin. It brings some levity to an otherwise tense space.

“Anxiety … and just basic fear,” said Estep, describing the emotions of many of his clients in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency. Estep directs immigration services at Catholic Charities of Central Texas.

“The rhetoric on the campaign trail – it was very strong, especially when it came to immigration,” said Estep. “Even folks who really don’t have anything to fear, even based on the rhetoric, are coming in because there’s just a general concern about what’s going to happen to immigration law once the new administration transitions in.”

Some of that anxiety and fear may soon be relieved with action taken by City Council on Thursday. Council members directed the city manager to find emergency funds for immigrants’ legal fees. The item is a response to the expectation that the incoming federal administration will take a much harsher stance on illegal immigration. President-elect Trump, for example, has said he will abolish President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

“We would be looking for funding to help people be able to access their legal rights that they already have,” said Council Member Greg Casar, who sponsored the item. “We know that this city is already very unaffordable, and being able to access a lawyer so that you can have access to your basic legal rights is too difficult for many people.”

Immigration lawyers and Council aides said they believe it may be the first time the city has taken steps to explicitly pay for immigration legal fees. The past two Councils have passed ordinances declaring Austin a “welcoming city” for immigrants – but that action has been little more than symbolic. Catholic Charities of Central Texas currently gets $100,000 from the city to aid with mental health services for immigrants. Casa Marianella, which provides services to homeless immigrants, including legal aid, is currently receiving $1 million in city funds to provide emergency housing.

The ordinance approved Thursday asks the city manager to fund money to aid 100 more immigration cases per month than local attorneys can currently handle. However, the measure included no financial note. City staff is expected to return at the end of January with one. An estimate based on costs gathered for this story from two local attorneys would suggest that funding services for 100 more immigrants per month could range anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million.

Justin Estep
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Mayor Steve Adler said he understood that the ordinance would just set out a capacity goal – finances would be voted on later. “I read this to identify what the hope would be of capacity,” said Adler. “But this would come back to the Council. We would see a number. We would see sources. We’re not committing or locked in to this issue.”

The item passed in a vote of 8-2, with Council members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair opposed. Council Member Sheri Gallo was absent. Zimmerman argued that the city would be subsidizing illegal immigration. Instead, he said, the city should be paying for legal resources for taxpayers.

“Is there any effort to educate and raise awareness with the people who don’t support illegal immigration … so that people know – taxpayers know – what their legal rights are, to not be forced to subsidize illegal immigration?” he asked.

Thursday marked Zimmerman’s last day on the dais after losing his re-election bid to Council Member-elect Jimmy Flannigan. And so, Council Member Delia Garza got a little nostalgic.

“I’m going to miss our software engineer opining on legal matters and federal statutes,” she said. “But I also reiterate that immigrants pay taxes. They pay sales taxes, they pay property taxes. And if they are working … they pay all taxes, and they’ll never get the return of the money they put into Social Security.”

In fact, PolitiFact found earlier this year that undocumented immigrants may have paid anywhere from $12 billion to $17.6 billion in taxes in 2010.

This story was published as part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.