Those of us with the privilege of stable employment, U.S. citizen status, and English proficiency will likely never need to worry about access to immigration legal services, but there are many neighbors in our community who do. Attorneys are often unaffordable, and at times unattainable, for those who need them. For low-income immigrant communities in DC, access to immigration legal services and resources is made possible through the help of organizations, associations, and law firms that dedicate themselves to providing support to this community.
In January 2017, Mayor Bowser announced that the DC government would provide $500,000 to community-based organizations, private organizations, associations, and law firms that do legal work for immigrants in DC, through the Immigrant Justice Legal Services Grant Program. This marked an important step forward to ensure that DC’s immigrant population has access to critical legal services. The first round of grants was extended to ten organizations that included Ayuda, KIND Inc., Briya Public Charter School, and Human Rights First. Since receiving funds, the grantees have completed numerous Know Your Rights presentations, legal consultations, and immigration law trainings.
The work made possible through the Immigrant Justice Legal Services Grant Program has made a significant impact in the DC immigrant community, a community that continues to grow. According to a report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the percentage of immigrants that make up the DC local population has risen from 12 percent 30 years ago, to 23 percent today. The proportion of the DC area’s population that is foreign-born is greater than the national average, and continues to rise. As our immigrant population in DC increases, we must also recognize that the growing need for legal services outweighs the current capacity.
Mayor Bowser deserves credit for recognizing the ongoing need, and renewing the Grant Program by making an additional $500,000 available in fiscal year 2018. However, as the need continues to grow, ongoing funding for the Immigrant Justice Legal Services Grant Program under the current structure will need to be considered, and renewed, every single year, leaving the future of the program in the balance on an annual basis.
Access to essential legal services for immigrants should not be up for debate every budget cycle, and our government should not be introducing uncertainty into the lives of already-vulnerable communities on an annual basis. We have a moral obligation to continue to help DC’s immigrant population in a way that is consistent, stable, and predictable.
After the program was initially announced in January 2017, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau introduced the Access to Justice for Immigrants Amendment Act that would build upon the existing program by expanding it through the creation of a sustainable, dedicated fund that would reinforce DC’s commitment to access to justice for all its residents. This bill never received a vote.
It is long past time for the DC Council to reflect our city’s commitment to our immigrant community by establishing a recurring line item in the budget that guarantees funding for the grant program and triples the total funding. According to organizations like Ayuda and CARECEN, $500,000 is simply not enough. An increase in funding is necessary, and the program must receive dedicated long-term funding.
DC is a progressive community. As a woman who identifies as Latina and Jewish, it was instilled in me that we don't leave our neighbors behind regardless of where they come from or what their needs are. I believe strongly that our community agrees with that sentiment, and it’s time we elect leaders who reflect it on our DC Council.