The Learnings: Our Path to an Immigrant Legal Services Fund
Andrea Guttin, HILSC Legal Director
For Part I of this Post, see “Revisiting Victory: The Path the an Immigrant Legal Services Fund“
In November 2020, Harris County allocated $2 million to an Immigrant Legal Services Fund to provide free legal counsel to Houstonians facing deportation. This success came after years of a long and hard push on behalf of community members and advocates. As we reflect on the path to victory, here is some of what we learned:
In a coalition, there will be many voices and strategic approaches. For HILSC, a collaborative made up of immigration legal services providers, social services providers, immigrant advocates, and community-based organizations, we must often balance the needs and priorities of our members. When we work in a coalition – such as Houston Leads – we also need to ensure that we are aligned with the vision and goals of that coalition. This is essential to ensure that the coalition is unified as strategies are implemented. The coalition also needs to have a decision-making structure in place. For us in Houston, this was possible because we had been building relationships with and among all partners for years leading up to this effort. These relationships built trust, which we continue to work on through transparency, listening to each other, and supporting our members by providing and listening to feedback for improvement.
Building a Coalition that Elevates Immigrants’ Voices
A coalition fighting for immigrant rights must include immigrant voices. Houston Leads includes many HILSC members that are community-based organizations, such as Texas Organizing Project, Mi Familia Vota, United We Dream, Living Hope Wheelchair Association, Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, and more. We recognize that our coalition represents the Latinx-community better than the African, Middle Eastern, and Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Houston Leads is working on decreasing barriers to participation in an effort to increase our membership and be more inclusive (to learn more visit the Houston Leads website).
In order to include immigrant voices, the coalition had to be very intentional about creating space for them. This involved not only making coalition spaces more welcoming and accessible, but pushing for government spaces and processes to be so as well.
For the coalition, making space for immigrant voices meant being patient, transparent and inclusive. For example, we ensured representatives from member-based organizations had sufficient time to go back to their groups to get support or feedback before making coalition decisions. We also shared information with members to be transparent about our work. We made sure to develop multilingual materials, such as talking points for testimony, and made sure to provide documents, videos, tweets, emails, and information sessions in English and Spanish. As the coalition grows – and in order to grow it – we need to expand our linguistic capacity to improve access for speakers of more languages.
For public spaces, such as Harris County Commissioners Court, we worked to ensure the venue was accessible by all Harris County residents, regardless of language or physical ability. To do this, we worked with our contacts in the county to ensure that the Commissioners Court had interpreters available on days when we planned to testify. But interpreter access isn’t enough because Harris County only allots three minutes for the public to speak on an agenda item – without additional time for interpretation. In our case, County Judge Lina Hidalgo gave people with interpreters more time to speak, as needed, but the County still has no rule to accommodate non-simultaneous interpretation.
Our coalition members also raised issues concerning the length of time people are expected to be at Commissioners Court. Agenda items are not given specific times to be heard, which means that in order to testify someone may need to be available all day. This may require taking off work, and for people with disabilities it may be impossible to be without an oxygen tank or other equipment for such long periods. Additionally, the Commissioners Court courtroom is not large and can only accommodate a limited number of wheelchairs. We need to be aware of the asks we are making of our coalition partners, and educate elected officials of the burden the process placed on working people who wish to testify.
We did good work to make members feel comfortable and prepared to testify, reaching out to elected officials to ensure they made space for wheelchairs, and we were able to humanize the campaign in the testimony given before the commissioners. However, we could have done more to create alternative spaces for community members to tell their stories, such as through social media, given the limitations of Commissioners Court.
As the project moved forward, we had to push the government to ensure that immigrant voices were continuously included. HILSC and Houston Leads encouraged Harris County to include immigrant voices by having two community-based organizations (Texas Organizing Project and Workers Defense Project) join the Taskforce working on the Request for Proposals Guidebook. HILSC hosted listening sessions with impacted community members in spring 2020 to inform the Request for Proposal (RFP) process. In these, county staff and staff from the County Judge and Commissioners offices listened and asked questions about access to counsel during the deportation process. HILSC also hosted a conversation in January 2021 for legal services providers who might be interested in bidding for the contract and community members so that the legal services providers could also be accountable to community needs. Our hope is that these relationships will continue to grow as the project moves forward.
Leveraging Local Data
When we first brought the proposal for funding legal services to Harris County, elected officials wanted to see data on the need for these services. It was critical to have the voices of community members to uplift lived experience, as well as legal services providers who could provide information on the gaps in resources. These were an important piece of what was needed, but still more was needed.
In order to fund the legal services work, Harris County had to show this funding complied with the Texas State Constitution’s requirement that county funds be used for a public purpose. As the first locally funded immigration legal services program in the state, Harris County had to show both the need for and the impact of providing these services. As experts in our field, HILSC was able to provide information to the county on the number of people facing deportation, the number of people with lawyers, and the number of people deported. We also needed to show the impact on the wider community – from families to neighborhoods, from education to economy.
As we did research, we shared the data we gathered with our partners and allies so they could uplift these needs to the County Commissioners in testimony before the Court. We drafted talking points and helped prepare our partners in advance of their testimony. We shared data with the County Judges offices and various County Commissioners offices. The Commissioners asked the Harris County Attorney’s Office to write a memo on the permissibility of this program under the Texas Constitution, so we also shared our research with the County Attorney’s Office.
Our research is compiled in our report “Communities Torn Apart: Impact of Detention and & Deportation in Houston,” published in November 2020 ahead of the final Commissioners Court vote on the dollar amount.
Knowing your Local Community Leaders
When we first started planning for a public funding campaign in fall 2018, we had to decide if we were going to approach the City of Houston or Harris County. Houston is a strong Mayoral-led form of government, but Mayor Sylvester Turner has not been a true advocate for our immigrant communities in Houston. Harris County is governed by a Commissioners Court led by the County Judge and four Precinct Commissioners, each covering a geographic region of Harris County. In the 2018 election County Judge Lina Hidalgo was elected, leading to a 3-2 Democratic majority in the Court. Lina Hidalgo was seen as someone who would be a true advocate and ally for immigrant rights.
After the decision to pursue a fund with the County, we needed to better understand barriers and opportunities with decision-makers. We also needed to start building relationships with the County Judge’s office and the Commissioners offices. We did this through meetings and partnering on other county projects where possible. Building relationships was helpful in giving us a better understanding of the county processes and potential roadblocks as we moved forward.
Houston Leads carried out a power mapping exercise to understand what our elected officials prioritized. In Harris County, for instance, Commissioner Rodney Ellis is an advocate of criminal legal reform while Commissioner Adrian Garcia – the former Harris County Sheriff – has worked closely with advocates of survivors of crime. Having this knowledge helped us frame the approach to different offices. For instance, Commissioner Garcia wanted to focus on survivors of crime in detention. HILSC’s Crime Victims Working Group explained the difficulties of identifying survivors in detention and uplifted the need for legal services outside of detention. This led the Commissioner to propose additional $500,000 in funds allocated to provide non-detained immigrant survivors of crime with immigration representation! By knowing our elected official, we could leverage additional funding by aligning that official’s priorities.
As we in the immigrant rights community know, immigrants are not a monolith – they are multilingual, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic. They are survivors of crime and they have engaged in crime. When we uplift a legal services fund, we are working on behalf of all immigrants, and thus we can appeal to many different points of view. Whether someone comes from a law enforcement background or is for criminal legal reform, the right to counsel is equally essential.
By the time we were ready for the big vote on the fund’s dollar amount, COVID was in full swing. Everyone was isolated, working while taking care of children and parents, and anxious about the uncertainty of the future. We were not meeting in person and neither were any government employees. In fact, Commissioners Court had transitioned to a fully virtual model, with the Judge and Commissioners appearing by video and testifiers calling in by phone. The local and national media were laser-focused on the pandemic, and it was difficult to get any attention on items not related to COVID.
In the meantime, people in detention were at an even higher risk of contracting COVID. By November 2020, there were more than 400 detained people that tested positive for COVID-19, despite severe under-testing in the detention facilities. The rate of infection was 25% at the time, and two people died at the Joe Corley Detention Center.
The issue facing our communities was dire and we needed to put pressure on the Commissioners Court to vote for a large dollar amount to support the fund. Without being able to bring people to commissioners offices, we turned to electronic media. One of the benefits of working in a wide coalition is having more resources at our disposal. One of our partners (shout-out to Mi Familia Vota!) let us use their software to create an auto-emailer campaign that supporters could use to send individualized emails to the County Judge and Commissioners through a webform. We also utilized social media – Twitter and Facebook – to uplift the form and to get the attention of our elected representatives.
In November, we were so excited about the vote that we made the decision to have a press conference outside of Commissioners Court. It was socially-distanced and we all wore masks. Even in the pandemic, it was an opportunity for us to come together and celebrate our victory!
One of the lessons that we gleaned from the pandemic is that the use of technology facilitates testimony. Instead of having to wait all day in a building, taking off work, or worrying about access to medication, people can testify from their own home by phone. The pandemic proved the technology is available and feasible. There is no reason why we cannot use the tools we had to rely on in times of strife to increase access when things are good in the future.
What’s Next for the ILSF?
As of July 2021, Harris County is still in the process of selecting the immigration legal services providers that will be contracted to provide services to people in detention. Once the program is launched, HILSC will work with partners to share how Houstonians can access that service. We’ll be working to report on the success of the program, and hopefully build on our funding in years to come!
For more, join our listserv (on the HILSC homepage), or follow us on Twitter @HTXimmigration for more.