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The Los Angeles City Council approved a plan Friday to donate $2 million over the next two fiscal years to a nonprofit legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation.

The Los Angeles Justice Fund was first announced by Mayor Eric Garcetti and other leaders in December, with the County Board of Supervisors pledging $3 million over two years and private donors pledging $5 million.

The idea for the fund was formed as a response to Donald Trump’s election as president and his vow to increase deportations of immigrants in the country illegally.

“Today we will put forth our Justice Fund with a commitment of $2 million, the only city in the county and in the state that is offering up $2 million to defend immigrants, and this is the way that we believe is best to fight Donald Trump’s attacks,” Councilman Gil Cedillo said at a news conference before the vote where he recognized Immigrant Heritage Month.

The vote was 11-1, with Councilman Mitchell Englander voting against the plan. Englander, the council’s only Republican, said he supported the idea of the fund but did not believe public money should be donated to it.

When he led a news conference announcing the fund, Garcetti said organizers hoped to have everything in place by Jan. 20 — the day Trump was sworn in — but L.A.’s contribution was slower to materialize as it worked its way through the City Council.

The council’s vote approved language making it possible for a person with a violent felony on their record to receive access to the funds.

The initial recommendation in a report from the chief legislative analyst said the money could not be provided to an individual who has been convicted of, or who is currently appealing a conviction for, a violent felony, which includes a conviction for human trafficking, child abuse, domestic violence, and/or pimping.

Some immigrant rights groups have opposed the city’s requirement that the fund not go toward helping anyone with a serious criminal record or facing serious charges, saying it played into Trump’s framework of “good” and “bad” immigrants.

In a compromise, the council added language before the vote that said the money could be used for someone with a violent conviction if a defense fund lawyer determined the person had a  “meritorious claim” and that there were “justifiable extenuating circumstances” in their case.

A meritorious claim means the person has a strong likelihood of not being deported based on the facts of the case.

The addition of the meritorious claim clause gave some council member pause, including Nury Martinez and Paul Koretz, who said they did not want the money to help defend rapists or murders.

Yolanda Chavez, an assistant chief administrative officer, told the council that a meritorious claim is very difficult to receive and used an example of a human trafficking victim who was forced to participate in a robbery. Other examples could be if they had minor children in the United States or could prove they had been a service to the community.

The fund is prioritized for people who are low-income, have family members in the city, are heads of their households or have been the victims of crimes, Chavez said. She also said it would not be likely that a convicted murderer would be found to have a meritorious claim.

Councilman Bob Blumenfield offered an amendment to further clarify the language, and added that the lawyer in the case would have to document “justifiable extenuating circumstances” in taking on the case.

Once Blumenfield’s language was added the council voted and approved the fund.

The Board of Supervisors approved their contribution to the fund on Tuesday, but it did not include a meritorious claim clause, meaning the nonprofit running the fund will have to carefully track how the contributions are spent.

“Immigrants do not stand alone in Los Angeles, and this city is bound to the American values of equal justice and due process,” Garcetti said. “Today’s City Council vote makes possible the allocation of our $2 million share of the L.A. Justice Fund, an extraordinary public-private partnership. But the L.A. Justice Fund is about more than dollars — it means that more Angelenos will have legal protection, more families will stay whole, and more people will be able to build lives with the people they love, in the country they chose.”

–City News Service

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