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Assemblywoman Selena Torres, left, with Assemblyman Will McCurdy II and Dina Neil on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020 during the fifth day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Finding an attorney to represent them in immigration court can be a challenge for people facing deportation proceedings who often don’t have the financial means to seek legal counsel.

In an attempt to bridge the gap, Nevada Assembly lawmakers on Wednesday approved AB376, which allocates $500,000 in state funds for the UNLV Immigration Clinic to expand its no-cost legal services for immigrants.

The bill advanced along party lines, with Republicans voting against it. Bill sponsor and Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D-Las Vegas) introduced AB376 during a hearing in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday alongside Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), who called the funding allocation a “smart use of money… an exciting use of money.”

“We have folks in the community who are doing really great work who are providing pro bono services to our immigrant community, and we know we have populations in need, so how do we help our helpers? And the answer was, get more support to the UNLV Immigration Clinic,” Benitez-Thompson said.

Nevada has the largest per-capita population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, said the funds would be used to create a community advocacy office off the UNLV campus intended to be more accessible for the community and to hire two new lawyers as part of the Immigrant Justice Corps, a fellowship program for law school graduates interested in practicing immigration law.

In addition to allocating half a million dollars to the clinic, the measure would also implement the “Keep Nevada Working Act,” establishing a task force headed by the lieutenant governor’s office and intended to generate strategies to bolster the state’s workforce and economy, including expanding pathways for immigrant workers and entrepreneurs.

The measure also requires the task force submit a report to the Legislative Counsel Bureau by July 1, 2022 with a summary of the work accomplished and recommendations for legislation.

Another section of AB376 requires the attorney general’s office publish model policies for local law enforcement agencies with the priorities of fostering trust between communities and state or local law enforcement, limit to the fullest extent legally possible interactions of state or local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities for the purpose of immigration enforcement. A subsequent section includes the limitation of immigration enforcement at public schools, colleges and universities, health care facilities and courthouses.

Various groups turned out in support of the bill, including the Nevada System of Higher Education, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and the ACLU of Nevada.

“It's a policy failure that we have not declared legal counsel a right in immigration proceedings, and you have an opportunity to take a step forward by passing this bill and appropriating these funds to this program,” said Holly Welborn, policy director of ACLU Nevada.

The bill also saw opposition from the Nevada Sheriffs and Chiefs Association, members of the Independent American Party and the Nevada Republican Party.

Eric Spratley, speaking on behalf of the sheriffs and chiefs association, pointed to the provision in AB376 that requires the attorney general’s office provide model policies for local law enforcement agencies to adopt. He expressed frustration at the lack of a fiscal note in regards to the funds it would take for local law enforcement agencies to implement new policies.

“Each Nevada law enforcement jurisdiction is different and unique,” he said. “Law enforcement leaders across Nevada are elected or appointed by the people of that jurisdiction, and as such, their local law enforcement operations have policies which reflect how those Nevada residents want their jurisdictions to function.”

Torres clarified that local agencies are allowed to opt out of the model policies drawn up by the attorney general’s office.

“Over the recent months we've seen local law enforcement agencies asking, even in interviews in the media, for there to be model policies and expressing distress that there was no model policies. This would give the opportunity for them to create model policies and local law enforcement agencies can choose to adopt those if it's so appropriate,” she said.

AB376 has survived key legislative deadlines after it was declared exempt in April and has been significantly watered down from its original version, which focused more explicitly on curbing collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration authorities (such as ICE).

For years, Nevada immigrants rights advocates have fought for the end of ICE detainers, practices by local law enforcement that hold undocumented immigrants for no legal reason other than to allow federal authorities to pick them up. Advocates argue this violates immigrants' constitutional rights.

A few Nevada agencies continue to participate in the 287(g) program, a formal partnership with ICE, including Nye County, but the informal practice of detaining immigrants for small infractions and flagging them on a database for federal authorities continues.

The measure must still pass through the Senate before heading to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk by Monday, when the session ends.

The various costs of deportation

Kagan, the UNLV Immigration Clinic director, said the $500,000 investment from the state general fund to the clinic over the biennium “might be more like $900,000 in impact,” explaining that deportation proceedings cost Nevada money and families separated by deportation end up depending on the state for more resources.

“When someone from Nevada is deported, that means that a family loses a breadwinner,” Kagan said. “That means a child loses a parent, that means that children are more likely to go into foster care, that means that schools may have additional costs for interventions to help that family, and I hope, for the sake of child safety, that is ultimately the state's responsibility and that's why it's important for us to do that work.”

When people avoid deportation and obtain legal permission to work, they can be self-sufficient and pay their taxes, he said, adding that a similar program in New York City generated $1 million in new tax revenue by expanding access to legal work permissions.

People are able to avoid deportation four out of five times, or 80 percent of the time, when they have lawyers to represent them in court, Kagan said, adding that the opposite is true as well.

“Just because they're in immigration court does not mean that people need to be deported,” he said.

The immigration clinic is the only place people facing deportation can turn to, he said, as most don’t have the means to hire a lawyer, especially unaccompanied children, who often face immigration proceedings alone. Immigration courts are civil courts, meaning that children facing deportation do not have a right to a government-appointed attorney, which is the case for criminal courts.

Kagan said unaccompanied children are the largest group of clients the clinic works with.

“Most of our child clients have been middle school or high school age but we have had clients as young as three when they first walked in the door. That's not something law school prepares you for very well, that's not a normal kind of client, but those children are victims of violence in their countries and often of child abuse as well,” he said.

With the goal to provide legal services to a growing population of people, Kagan said the funds allocated in AB376 could help propel the immigration clinic’s reach further in the long term.

“It would be the beginning of something bigger,” he said. “This is essential for the community in which we live, for our neighbors, and generally for the value that when someone's family is in jeopardy, they should not stand alone.”

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