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Sonoma County seeks to build $2 million legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation

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Sonoma County wants to help raise $2 million over the next three years to expand legal services for residents facing possible deportation — a move government leaders hope can alleviate widespread fear among those who are undocumented about the immigration policies of President Donald Trump’s administration.

Money will likely come from both public and private sources, and it will go into a fund held by the Community Foundation Sonoma County. The fund will be used to pay for attorneys and some support staff to help defend residents against deportation.

It’s one of several ways the county is trying to support undocumented immigrants and their families as the federal government, under Trump’s watch, has toughened its approach to immigration enforcement.

Similar efforts already are underway in cities and counties across California. San Francisco and Alameda counties this year agreed to hire new immigration attorneys, and Los Angeles is working on a $10 million legal defense fund for immigrants who face deportation.

Creation of the Sonoma County fund was put in motion by the Board of Supervisors three months ago when it authorized an initiative to look at improvement of government services for immigrants.

Tuesday’s update — adding a dollar goal to the fund — came as county officials raised alarm over an apparent new trend in immigrant households — notably Spanish-speaking families. Among that segment of the local population, the county has seen an irregular and sharp decline in enrollment in some government programs since last year at this time. More than 800 children from such families no longer receive state food aid, according to Karen Fies, director of the county’s Human Services Department.

“We’ve heard the stories from Health and Human Services, but we’ve also heard the stories, even before this administration, of undocumented community members who were fearful of reporting substandard living conditions because they knew they would be evicted,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin.

“This is a need that is very present in our community ... Our economy is based on agriculture and tourism, for the most part, and those are the communities, those are the workers who are most vulnerable.”

The board’s moves have been welcomed by immigration advocates.

“We appreciate all of the support,” said Margaret Flores McCabe, the executive director of VIDAS, an immigration services and advocacy group in Santa Rosa. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Still, she echoed the reports from county staff members, stressing the anxiety among local immigrants, some of whom are “not coming to pick up fruits and vegetables” for fear of deportation, she said. The new legal fund arises out of a shortfall identified after the board’s initial action in late February. The County Counsel’s Office set up a series of meetings with immigration lawyers and advocates who found the county had “extremely inadequate legal services to provide deportation defense representation,” according to a staff report. The group recommended expanding those services, and a smaller committee set the $2 million goal.

To meet that goal, officials will seek contributions from local governments and private donors, including representatives of the hospitality industry, the wine industry and other agricultural businesses. Fundraising will kick off at a launch event this summer, after which the county plans to issue a request for proposals to provide the legal services at a later date.

Guidelines on who would be eligible for the subsidized legal help could be made public at that time.

Some of Trump’s most attention-grabbing proposals — namely, his plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and a crackdown on so-called “sanctuary cities” — have either failed to gain momentum or been stalled by the courts.

But he has broadened the scope of potential deportations, resulting in a 38 percent increase in immigration arrests early this year, although deportations dropped.

The Los Angeles Times in February found that up to 8 million undocumented immigrants could become deportation targets under Trump’s plans.

The executive orders and rhetoric coming form the federal government have had a significant impact in Sonoma County, generating deep anxiety among immigrant residents, some of whom are no longer enrolling in certain government programs, officials said.

“This is very real. The fear is palpable,” Supervisor James Gore said.

“The rumors are becoming reality in some ways.”

The county has set up a website — sonomacounty.ca.gov/immigration — with educational materials about immigrants’ rights. The board also has backed a few state bills designed to protect immigrants and supported a legal challenge to Trump’s executive order targeting sanctuary cities.

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