Sonoma County asking cities to fund deportation defense

The Sonoma County Secure Families Fund, which hopes to raised $2 million, is asking Santa Rosa and other cities for help.|

In February, Santa Rosa declared itself an “Indivisible City” in a largely symbolic expression of support for undocumented immigrants.

Today, the City Council will have the chance to back up those words with action when it considers a request to fund a newly formed legal defense program for immigrants living in Sonoma County.

The city is being asked to contribute to the Sonoma County Secure Families Fund, established recently by the Community Foundation of Sonoma County to raise $2 million over the next three years.

The money aims to provide legal support and education to some of the nearly 30,000 undocumented Sonoma County residents who are either facing deportation or dealing with housing or employment discrimination as a result of anti-immigrant programs, policies or rhetoric by federal officials.

“We need to have a more robust legal defense program in the county that can meet the needs of this community,” said Bruce Goldstein, Sonoma County counsel.

Earlier this year, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors pledged $100,000 for each of the next three years toward the effort. The Community Foundation later pledged $25,000 and will manage what is known as the donor-advised fund.

That means any organization that donates at least $100,000 will get a seat on the advisory board.

At the moment, the steering committee is composed of Goldstein and Lisa Carreno, an attorney and regional director of 10,000 Degrees, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that provides scholarships to low-income students.

Goldstein said he hopes Santa Rosa, where a large percentage of undocumented immigrants in the county live, will agree to match the county’s pledge of $100,000 a year.

“I think there is clearly a need for what they are proposing,” Mayor Chris Coursey said Monday when asked about the request.

But he said he’s not sure how his colleagues feel about the issue, how much the city might contribute or where the money would come from. He said he’s eager to hear the details of the proposed program.

The city has about $6.1 million in unassigned money in its General Fund, CFO Debbi Lauchner said, though she stressed the figure is approximate.

The city has numerous upcoming needs that might require tapping some of that cash, however, including the annexation of Roseland, which is on track to be finalized by the end of the year, or the city’s cannabis and rental inspection programs, which may need upfront funding, she said.

The proposal is an outgrowth of an initiative Sonoma County took earlier this year to figure out what services are needed by the undocumented community, particularly as President Donald Trump vowed to boost border security and step up deportations.

Attendance at local workshops aimed at teaching immigrants their rights skyrocketed, demonstrating the level of fear and anxiety in the community, Goldstein said.

Other data show troubling declines in enrollment by Spanish-?speaking clients in government safety net programs such as CalWORKs, which provides financial assistance to families with children in need. CalWORKs has seen a 19 percent drop in enrollment this year, while nutrition assistance for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is down 5 percent, according to Sonoma County officials.

Conversations with immigration advocates make it clear there are too few local attorneys practicing the kind of law that those in Trump’s crosshairs might need, such as deportation defense, Goldstein said.

The Sonoma County Counsel’s Office advises government agencies, not individuals, and the Sonoma County Office of the Public Defender only represents people in criminal matters, not deportations, which are considered civil, Goldstein said.

Deportation proceedings take place in San Francisco, compounding the challenge for local families, he said. While there haven’t been any major raids by federal immigration officials in Sonoma County this year, advocates believe there is a strong need to prepare for the potential, he said.

“The focus is making sure folks in our community are able to take advantage of the protections that are available to them under our laws, and without a lawyer, it’s really hard to do that,” he said.

A survey showed that up to 50 attorneys in the county were willing to do pro bono work to help immigrants in these and other scenarios, but the challenge is to train and manage them effectively, Goldstein said.

Another idea backed by the supervisors is to reimburse the $495 application cost to young people who need to renew their status under Deferred Access for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Workshops to educate employers about their rights are envisioned, as well, he said.

If enough donations are secured, the group hopes to send out a request for proposals and contract with an organization or group of organizations to manage the work.

Other groups that have pledged funds to date include Los Cien and the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria. It is hoped that Sonoma County businesses also participate.

Goldstein made a presentation to the Sonoma County Mayors & Councilmembers Association several weeks ago. Since then just one city, Petaluma, has formally declined to participate, citing a lack of funding, Goldstein said. Santa Rosa is the first city council Goldstein has directly asked for funds. He intends to make similar pitches to Sebastopol, Windsor and other cities in coming weeks.

If Santa Rosa decides to move forward today, the final plan would return to the City Council for action.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or

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