Revisiting Victory: The Path to an Immigrant Legal Services Fund

Andrea Guttin, HILSC Legal Director

One year ago, I sat in a conference room surrounded by immigrant community members, organizers, lawyers, union leaders, religious leaders, and other allies as we prepared to testify before Harris County’s Commissioners Court in favor of the creation of an Immigrant Legal Services Fund. HILSC and the Houston Leads coalition had been organizing for nearly two years for Harris County to join dozens of other cities and counties across the country to provide free legal services to Houstonians facing deportation.

Deportations impact Houston’s families, communities, and economy – this affects all of us, regardless of immigration status. Houston is the most diverse city in the nation, where one in every four residents is foreign-born and more refugees are resettled here than any other city in the US. Yet each year, thousands of Houston and Harris County residents are deported.

In 2018, ICE deported 6,612 Houston area residents – 46 percent more than the previous year. Over 10,000 people were ordered deported by a judge in Houston’s non-detained immigration courts that same year.  Most people facing deportation do not have a lawyer, yet people with counsel are ten and a half times more likely to win their case. In Houston’s detention centers, over 95 percent of people detained were ordered deported in one year. The need for local government to step in and fund legal representation is clear – it has been the goal of HILSC and Houston Leads to make a locally-funded legal services program a reality.

In early 2020, victories in immigration policy were less than few and far between – they did not exist. But on February 25, 2020, we made a victory happen. It was not easy and it was not fast, but it was something that had never before been done – public funding by a county in Texas. When the budget vote came nine months later, it was another first: the largest immigrant legal services fund in the country with $2 million to provide free legal representation for immigrants in detention facing deportation.

The Road to Victory

The victory of 2020 was a product that was years in the making. In 2017, HILSC identified a gap in legal services in Houston’s detention centers. At that time, only one agency was providing services for people detained in the Houston area. By 2018, HILSC had secured funding for a collaborative project – Deportation Defense Houston (DDH) – that would provide free legal representation for people detained in any of Houston’s four detention centers.  Since its inception, the DDH project had identified the goal of obtaining public funding for this work. DDH began serving clients in June 2018 and since then has represented over 150 clients.

To break the arrest-detention-deportation pipeline, HILSC helped found the Houston Leads Coalition in November 2018. We also made use of Vera Institute of Justice’s offer of $100,000 in matching catalyst funding through its SAFE Network to begin our advocacy with the Harris County Judge’s office. We pitched the creation of an Immigrant Legal Services Fund to the newly elected County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who agreed to write a letter of interest to Vera. The Houston Leads coalition continued meeting with her office and that of other Commissioners in the ensuing months. In those meetings, it became clear to us that we needed to gather data about the impact of detention and deportation in Greater Houston to support our advocacy.

To help elected officials understand the lived realities of Houston area residents in immigration detention – the majority of them without a lawyer – HILSC offered a detention center tour to Harris County officials and Mayor Sylvester Turner in the summer of 2019. Lina Hidalgo joined, as did staff from the Commissioners of Precincts 1 and 2. The City did not send a representative.  Judge Hidalgo was moved by the visit, saying: “I witnessed first-hand the effects of the White House criminalizing the American Dream, as immigrants seeking asylum languished in a disorganized, demoralizing purgatory. Basic human rights should not be contingent on a set of documents.”

In the summer of 2019, the Trump administration announced a series of raids. HILSC responded by activating our Immigrant Rights Hotline, and we shared the number with the City and County so they could uplift it. Harris County planned to pass a resolution urging the use of our hotline to report raids but the Harris County Attorney’s office raised SB4 concerns about the language in the resolution. Ultimately, the resolution passed without reference to the hotline due to those concerns. The changes to the resolution made clear that the Harris County Attorney’s Office (HCAO) had concerns about how much the county could do under Texas law after the passage of SB4. As immigration experts, we knew that SB4 did not impact the fund. We brought in our allies at the ACLU of Texas and MALDEF to meet with the Harris County Attorney’s Office. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) drafted a sign-on letter outlining the reasons SB4 would not impact Houston Leads’ asks of the County.

Following these meetings in fall 2019, the County Judge asked the County Attorney to prepare a memo on the legality of an ILSF. We knew any legal memo would also need to address county spending power under the Texas Constitution. This had not come up for legal services funds passed by the cities of San Antonio, Austin, or Dallas since cities and counties have different power under the Constitution. We provided the HCAO with our research, including data on the impact of detention and deportation in Greater Houston, including the numbers of people in proceedings, the number of people in detention, and the number of people ordered deported.

The Vote Happens! An Immigrant Legal Services Fund is Formed

In February 2020, the County Judge added the ILSF as an agenda item to be voted on. In advance of the vote, we put a call out to allies to ask them to testify on the needs from their perspective. This includes the member-based organizations of Houston Leads, and HILSC partners like mental health providers, victim advocates, child advocates, faith leaders, physicians, and more. Houston Leads members put out a joint media advisory and press statement and we created a press toolkit for partners with sample twitter posts and flyers. In advance of the vote, individual organizations met with Commissioners Offices to uplift the importance of the fund.

HILSC took the lead in preparing partners for testimony. We created “how-to testify” documents in Spanish and English, drafted talking points, and held info sessions in Spanish and English for people with questions on how to testify. The day of court, we asked people to show up wearing Houston Leads stickers and hold signs.

On February 25, 2020, HILSC and Houston Leads won a huge victory. The County Commissioners voted to pass a resolution creating the legal services fund. They did not, however, allocate a dollar amount that same day, which meant there would be another vote, requiring additional community mobilization.

“BE IT RESOLVED that Harris County Commissioners Court directs the Community Services Department to design, administer funds for, and oversee an immigrant legal services program for county residents, subject to final approval by Commissioners Court.”

It’s Not Over Yet… Allocating Public Funds

After the Harris County resolution creating the fund, Houston Leads urged the County to create a Taskforce that was inclusive of community voices. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, we knew the County’s Community Services Department (CSD) would need to dedicate resources to the COVID response but we did not want the ILSF process to stall. HILSC offered to put together recommendations for the Taskforce and to host listening sessions with different communities: legal services providers, social services providers, and impacted community members.

In late April, CSD finalized the Taskforce: a mix of County departments, philanthropy, nonprofits, and impacted member-based organizations. In April and May 2020, HILSC and Houston Leads hosted community listening sessions. The purpose of these listening sessions was to ensure transparency and solicit community feedback into the process. There was one session for immigration legal services nonprofits, one for social services agencies and community-based organizations working with immigrants, and two for impacted community members.

In June, we reported on these listening sessions to the Task Force, and the Task Force took this information into account as it developed the RPF over the following three months. In September, the Taskforce made its initial recommendation to the County Judge and Commissioners.

Houston Leads began an email and twitter campaign in September 2020, urging the County to allocate 2.5 million to the fund each year for three years. In November 2020, the County Commissioners were to vote on the dollar amount to allocate to the fund. HILSC and Houston leads again mobilized our members, partners, and allies. This time, we had another hurdle to overcome – virtual testimony because of the Coronavirus pandemic. HILSC prepared documents and videos in English and Spanish with information on how people could testify virtually. We updated and shared talking points in both English and Spanish.

$2 million to Keep Houston Families Together

On November 10, 2020, our years of work paid off. The people had spoken, and our elected officials listened. The Harris County Commissioners Court voted to allocate $2 million dollars to an immigrant legal services fund for people facing deportation. After one year, another $2 million in funding could be renewed upon approval by the Commissioner Court.

This was a huge win! The biggest legal services fund for the biggest immigrant community in Texas. We held a press conference with advocates, immigrants, and organizers. After the vote, Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioner Garcia also spoke and shared the victory with us. Due to the pandemic, not everyone in the coalition was able to be in the same space physically to celebrate the victory but we did our best to celebrate virtually. As for the HILSC team… Julie Pasch (the DDH Managing Attorney) and I met in the dog park with our pups Shamsi and Luna to celebrate with champagne! We of course did so responsibly, from 6 feet apart and masked.

This success was built on years of a long and hard effort on behalf of community members and advocates. Since that time, the County has been finalizing the RFP, which we hope will be released soon. Houston Leads will be offering community information sessions once the projects are awarded and starts dated have been set. We cannot wait to see what happens, yet we know one thing is certain – this much needed funding will help thousands of Houstonians fighting deportation and help keep families together.

Lessons Learned… Coming Soon!

Part 2 of this blog post will review our learnings of this process.

Stay tuned, join our listserv (on the HILSC home page), or follow us on Twitter @HTXimmigration for more.