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San Francisco Mayor gives boost to immigrants fighting deportation

City Hall is seen in San Francisco in this undated image. (KGO-TV)

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has signed off on a plan to provide some funding for legal defense to immigrants through the public defender's office, albeit at a far lower level than advocates had initially hoped for.

Lee has agreed to authorize the San Francisco Public Defender's Office to use more than $200,000 in savings from the current year's budget to hire three new staff attorneys and one paralegal for the defense of immigrants facing deportation in San Francisco's immigration court, according to a letter sent to members of the Board of Supervisors' Budget and Finance Committee today.

The approval falls somewhat short of what the committee's recommendation for one head attorney, two staff attorneys and one paralegal, and far below the 10 attorneys, five paralegals and two clerks initially requested in legislation introduced by former Supervisor David Campos last fall.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi today said he was pleased by the decision but would still seek to expand the program in the coming years.

"These new positions will allow us to fight on behalf of approximately 150 immigrants locked in deportation detention and separated from their families," Adachi said. "We look forward to increasing the number of people we can help by advocating for additional positions during the budget process."

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Campos' push for public defender funding stalled out last year in the face of opposition from Lee, who has said he prefers to fund immigration defense work through community-based nonprofits.

The city appropriated an additional $1.5 million for such nonprofits following the November election, on top of a previous $3.8 million commitment. In addition, last week the mayor announced a fund, to be administered by the Interfaith Council, that will allow corporations and philanthropic organizations to donate money toward immigrant legal defense.

However, immigration advocates have argued that the nonprofits cannot serve the estimated 1,500 people in immigration detention in San Francisco at any given time, up to 85 percent of whom do not have attorneys. Those with attorneys are seven times more likely to be allowed to stay in the country than those without, according to the public defender's office.

Recently elected Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer renewed Campos' legislation last month, seeking a mid-year funding appropriation for up to eight attorneys as well as management and support staff.

Her proposal met with resistance and was further reduced last week in a Budget and Finance Committee meeting by Supervisors Katy Tang and Malia Cohen, who said they were reluctant to commit city funds without going through the regular budget process.

Fewer today said she was celebrating the mayor's decision, even if it wouldn't meet all of the existing need.

"We owe many thanks to San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi for stepping up to provide these legal services, and to the community for pushing the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor to take this step," Fewer said. "San Francisco, in the face of a federal attack on immigrant communities, should be leading on this issue and I'm glad that we have taken this important first step."

Adachi today said he has already hired Jennifer Friedman, a former managing director of immigration practice at the Bronx Defenders in New York City, to fill one of the new immigration attorney positions. New York is one of a few other cities and counties that has established public funding for immigrant legal defense.

San Francisco has an estimated 44,000 undocumented immigrants, including around 11,000 from Mexico, 10,000 from China, and 2,000 from the Philippines, according to city figures.

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