The City-County Council on Monday voted to spend $100,000 on a new legal protection fund aimed at asylum-seekers, immigrants seeking citizenship and those living in the area without legal permission.
The city’s Office of Public Health and Safety plans to match the money with $50,000 from its budget to establish the Immigrant Defense Fund.
“This administration is very supportive of all people living in Marion County, including our immigrant neighbors, and they do deserve representation, just like everybody else,” said Lauren Rodriguez, the agency’s director.
Part of the money will be used to track the program’s outcomes and develop the data needed to determine the program’s efficacy, said Councilor Crista Carlino, a Democrat who co-sponsored the proposal, which passed 20-5 along party lines.
Republicans argued that the money would be better used on different services.
“One thing we’ve heard so often from many of our colleagues is that there needs to be more money spent on mental health,” said Republican Councilor Brian Mowery. “Only, when we find money, we’re spending it on illegal immigration.”
He said helping immigrants “is a great philanthropic thing for us to look at. But that’s where it is, it’s philanthropic,” not a need to be funded by government.
Seeking asylum is legal, but the fund would also help some immigrants who are not legally in the U.S. or who are involved in legal battles over their status.
“I find it interesting, the notion that this is seen as a novel concept and that it’s something that should be relegated just to philanthropy,” said Councilor Jason Larrison, a Democrat. Larrison pointed to the county’s public defender’s offices, which also have origins in legal aid organizations. Marion County’s own Public Defender Agency dates back only to 1994.
Republicans proposed directing the money to mental health services. But that proposal failed, also along party lines.
Democrat Ethan Evans, suggested that $100,000 was not “nearly enough” to address the city’s mental health crisis.
“It’s got to be a lot bigger than that, if we’re thinking about tackling the issue of mental illness in the city,” said Evans, who pointed to the multi-million-dollar price tag on the Community Justice Campus’ mental health-focused Assessment and Intervention Center. “We need more $13-plus million, $16-plus million ideas and projects, and we can’t just settle for $100,000 here and there.”
Councilor Leroy Robinson, a Democrat and chair of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, said that an initiative addressing mental health was in the works, and “will be rolling out in the next 30 days.”
Some councilors said there already are numerous organizations providing low-cost immigration legal aid.
Republican Councilor Michael-Paul Hart said diverting money to immigrant legal aid takes money away from “functions that we are elected to do … which are public safety, infrastructure, making sure we have clean water—all those things that are normal functions. ”
“We have a large list of institutions that are out there doing this work today,” he added.
But the eight organizations in Indianapolis that provide affordable help can’t meet demand, said Gurinder Hohl, CEO of the not-for-profit Immigrant Welcome Center, which runs a helpline.
“One in three of our callers indicate that their legal needs are not being met,” Hohl said. “Despite the presence of these legal service providers, the needs of these immigrant members are not being met.”
And the public defender’s office can’t fill the gap either, said Brandon Herget, the council’s chief financial officer and policy director.
“There are certainly some legal services that the Public Defender Agency can and should provide to the immigrant population,” he said. “But just based on statute and the jurisdiction and vision of the county public defender, the type of services that … we’re contemplating aren’t the same type of services that our county Public Defender Agency should provide.”