Illegal Aliens Are Getting Free Lawyers, and You’re Paying for It

Investigative Reports |Press Releases

January 11, 2022

IRLI exposes government funding for non-citizens charged with civil offenses

WASHINGTON—From coast to coast, numerous city and county governments are enacting taxpayer-funded programs that provide free legal representation to illegal aliens fighting deportation orders, an investigation by the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) has revealed.

In one glaring example discovered by IRLI, city officials in Philadelphia admitted that they administered no oversight over its deportation defense program, despite funding it with hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

A deportation defense program is any initiative that provides representation and/or other legal services to a non-citizen facing deportation proceedings, typically at reduced or no cost to the defendant. Under U.S. law, illegal aliens and other non-citizens facing deportation orders do not have a right to legal representation because immigration law is a civil matter, not a criminal one.

A progressive non-profit organization based in New York City, the Vera Institute of Justice, has served as the main catalyst for the proliferation of these deportation defense programs. The group claims that, out of the more than 50 publicly funded local and state deportation defense programs across the US, its SAFE Initiative (Safety & Fairness for Everyone) is formal partners with 22 of these communities.

“These programs are an insult to every law-abiding American citizen and legal resident,” said Dale L. Wilcox, executive director and general counsel of IRLI. “Our laws clearly state that non-citizens charged with civil offenses do not have a right to legal representation. Yet we have radical anti-borders groups starting these programs and sticking unknowing citizens with the bill. It’s outrageous.”

Vera typically provides one-time grants to localities initiating these programs, which fund legal services, with the aim of making these programs permanent.  The first such program began in New York City in 2013, dubbed the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, with similar programs spreading since then. The growth of these deportation defense funds have not slowed down but proliferated. In the past year alone, new programs have been created while others have seen their temporary status made permanent and enjoyed increased funding. Vera says its goal is universal representation for individuals in immigration court – meaning any illegal alien in the country contesting a deportation order would be provided an attorney at no cost to them.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced the creation of the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP) in 2019, a collaboration between Vera and the city as a way to combat the alleged “hate” emanating from the Trump administration. PAIFUP was launched in 2019 with $100,000 from city taxpayers and another $200,000 from Vera and the Samuel S. Fels Fund, bringing a grand total of $300,000. The program was put in jeopardy in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when nationwide lockdowns shuttered innumerable businesses, resulting in mass layoffs and leaving government budgets obliterated.

The Philadelphia government, faced with steep budget cuts, was poised to nix the program. However, the city’s leaders somehow not only found a way to maintain the program amid a financial crisis, but doubled taxpayer commitment to $200,000 for next fiscal year. According to the PAIFUP’s website, there are “no eligibility criteria other than income and a lack of private counsel,” adding that they do not “exclude individuals based on prior criminal convictions, residency, or any other reason.”

IRLI submitted a records request with the city of Philadelphia for a complete list of the charges (excluding any Personally Identifiable information (PII)) associated with those represented by PAIFUP and all operational guidance handed to program administrators by the city.) That request was denied by the city. In response to an IRLI appeal, the City of Philadelphia stated clearly that it can’t provide such information simply because it does not provide any sort of management or oversight over the program – despite providing hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars annually to the program.

Much like other towns and cities across the country, Fort Collins, Colorado, struggled with the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus lockdown. So much so, city leaders anticipated a 2021 budget cut of around $13 million – no small sum for a town of roughly 170,000. Despite the steep financial sacrifices citizens and city leaders were making, anti-borders advocates did not let up on their desire to see a taxpayer-funded deportation defense fund launched.

Illegal alien advocates got their wish when, during a July 6, 2021 meeting, the Fort Collins City Council passed Ordinance No. 64, which established the creation of an immigration defense pilot program. The program came with a $150,000 budget, entirely funded with taxpayer money.

The seven-member city council greenlit the defense fund by a vote of 5-2. However, members of the community expressed concern over a potential conflict of interest with the vote (some of whom reached out to IRLI) by noting that two members of the city council have connections to The Family Center/La Familia, an organization that provides legal services to immigrants and stands to benefit from the creation of the pilot program.

Council members Tricia Canonico and Emily Francis, both of whom voted in favor of the measure, have apparent ties to The Family Center. Francis is currently listed on the Center’s staff page and described as a Partnership and Grants Director. The LinkedIn page for Canonico identifies her as a board member of the Center since June 2020, and she also identified herself as a board member in a March 2021 local news article. She may have stepped down since then, as she is no longer listed as a board member of the Center’s current board website.

Millions in taxpayer dollars are spent every year by the 22 local and city governments that are formal partners with SAFE. Upon researching every SAFE partner, IRLI estimates that at least $5.6 million dollars will be spent by taxpayers living in these communities for the 2022 fiscal year. This is a conservative estimate and does not include numerous other localities that fund their own independent anti-deportation programs.  

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