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Tacoma's Immigrant Defense Fund Struggles To Find Donors

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Activists gather in tents outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma on April 12, 2017

The City of Tacoma's legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation is struggling to attract donors. 

Just under $2,000 has flowed in from 21 donors since the fund's creation in late October.

City Council members voted to make an initial investment of $50,000 of taxpayer money, but hoped private donors would double that amount within a few months.

"I was expecting a little more," said City Council Member Keith Blocker, who pushed for the city's Deportation Defense Fund.

"I think we did a pretty good job at getting the word out initially," he added. "And we didn't really come up with a strategy to keep letting the community know about it." 

The fund is designed to pay for legal help for city residents who are facing deportation and can't afford a lawyer.

Tacoma leaders plan to seek an outside group to administer the program once three months have passed or the fund reaches $100,000.

It appears the three-month mark will arrive first. 

Tacoma's Immigrant and Refugee Task Force recommended in August that the City Council invest $440,000 into the fund.

Star Murray, an activist who was among those calling for the fund, said she was skeptical of the program's reliance on donations from the beginning. 

"Really, what we need is government oversight," she said. "We need due process for everyone. And to then ask for donations for that from private donors, from potentially endowments, that didn't seem right." 

Still, she called the creation of the fund an important step. 

"We learned to take what we can because our communities are really suffering right now and it feels like an emergency," Murray said. "Especially for Tacoma, we thought it was a win." 

Murray, a founder of a group called Tacoma Migrant Justice, said activists are well-acquainted with the challenges of raising money for undocumented immigrants.

For one, she said, potential donors may not be aware that people facing deportation aren't guaranteed a lawyer if they can't afford one, as they are in the criminal justice system. 

Seattle and King County jointly created a similar fund in April and invested $1.5 million. That money has since been divvied up among several nonprofit groups, with most of it going to Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. 

Murray said Tacoma has a special obligation to fund legal help because the city benefits from being home to the federal Northwest Detention Center, which houses up to 1,575 immigrants facing deportation from across the Pacific Northwest.

"The City of Tacoma owes immigrants and refugees facing deportation a Deportation Defense Fund that is more than $50,000," she said. 

"There is property taxes coming from the Northwest Detention Center," she added. "There is an economy of the immigration detention system, so money is coming into the city." 

Councilmember Blocker said he plans to use his Facebook page and other forums to raise awareness about the program, and hopes the fund can reach $100,000 by March.

"There's still an opportunity to engage the business community and an opportunity to engage other community members to support this cause," he said.

"I think it's going to take some serious effort at this point," he added, "based on what we saw the last month." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.