Immigrant legal defense fund, city IDs advance amid Trump era uncertainties

Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, a city councilor in Detroit, holds the first Detroit Municipal ID card in December. (Photo: Global Detroit)

Undocumented immigrants living in Cambridge and facing deportation or other enforcement actions could soon have a city-backed legal defense fund to support them and a “lawyer on speed dial,” under a plan discussed Monday by the City Council.

The council also passed orders related to providing other resources and a municipal ID program for undocumented immigrants.

Fears persist over deportation raids and the loss of federal funds as punishment for remaining a sanctuary city while President Donald Trump swings wildly on the issue – telling reporters on Tuesday that he might be willing to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants, then leaving it unmentioned in his first address before Congress that evening.

The city manager was asked to gather and list resources for undocumented citizens in a variety of languages on the city’s website and in print, though in the unpredictable political climate, councillors called legal resources perhaps the most critical. Councillor Jan Devereux shared an oft-repeated sentiment, that “all these people should have a lawyer on speed dial.”

Councillor Nadeem Mazen said he was working with vice mayor Marc McGovern to ensure that. “We may need to talk about an urgent addition to the budget both for legal defense and for full-time positions,” he said, though he did not think Monday’s meeting was the right time to discuss it. “Instead of burdening this policy order with a semi-related amendment, I will work … to launch a policy order in that vein.”

McGovern agreed the time wasn’t right to have the conversation about a legal aid fund, but that he had met with the city manager and other staff to consider options. He clarified that the city would not create this resource through the city solicitor’s office, but would contract with outside legal organizations. Councillor Craig Kelley, who’d questioned why the council would put off the conversation, suggested it represented a challenge within the council on effective communication.

Similar concerns arose in discussing a municipal identification card program. It was not the first time the council has considered one – in June the council passed a similar order, and Kelley called it “another example of how we need to figure out how better to talk about fast-moving issues.”

Not insurmountable

In September, then-city manager Richard C. Rossi reported that “there do not appear to be any legal issues which would prevent the city from enacting a municipal ID program.” A memo from Nicole Murati Ferrer, chairwoman of the License Commission, detailed the logistics of implementing a program.

“I think the feedback last year was there are some hurdles to doing this, but they are surmountable,” Mazen said. The two main issues: “Who is getting one of these municipal IDs – certainly we don’t want to just create an easily accessible database of undocumented residents of the city … and second, we need this to be a safe list somehow, encrypted or otherwise handled, and I’m sure there are best practices for that.”

The municipal identification cards were also called helpful for the homeless.

Simple but secure

Though there are many ideas for features of the IDs, including store discounts, McGovern said, conversations at the State House about a similar statewide program in the works suggest it is best to “keep it simple.” Rather than try to make the card more attractive with perks, the suggestion is to “do what we can to make sure we get some kind of legal ID into peoples’ hands” quickly.

Resident Kelsey Harris spoke during public comment to urge a program that would not “expose immigrant populations in particular to more danger from a potentially, or possibly not potentially, hostile federal government.”

Phoebe Ayers added her support. “The research shows [municipal IDs] are helpful to populations in diverse cities like ours. They’ve been implemented in New Haven, in San Francisco and elsewhere, and I think it’s important that we do more to encourage immigrants and a unified city at this time, rather than less,” Ayers said.

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