Metro

Cambridge, Somerville mayors back legal-aid fund to help immigrants

Mayors Joseph Curtatone of Somerville (left) and Marc McGovern of Cambridge are supporting the private fund’s initiative.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Mayors Joseph Curtatone of Somerville (left) and Marc McGovern of Cambridge are supporting the private fund’s initiative.

CAMBRIDGE — The mayors of two of Massachusetts most liberal cities threw their support Monday behind a private fund designed to help undocumented immigrants fight President Trump’s stringent deportation policies.

Mayors Marc C. McGovern of Cambridge and Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville asked residents to donate to the United Legal Defense Fund, which makes grants to legal-aid organizations and was launched a year ago by the Cambridge Community Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropy.

No public money will be used for the fund, the mayors said, but they are endorsing it because they said the need for free legal help for immigrants is growing following’s Trump’s rollback of legal protections for immigrants and tougher enforcement of immigration law.

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“The data and the evidence are clear: Access to legal counsel vastly improves the likelihood of success within the immigration system, as flawed as it is,” Curtatone said at a press conference with McGovern at Cambridge City Hall.

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Boston, Denver, Long Beach, Calif., and New York state are among the cities and states that have launched similar funds to provide legal services for immigrants. McGovern said he hopes the joint effort by Cambridge and Somerville encourages more communities to follow suit.

The fund currently has about $200,000 and has disbursed $250,000 over the last year to four legal-aid groups: De Novo, in Cambridge; the Irish International Immigrant Center, in Boston; the PAIR Project, in Boston; and Greater Boston Legal Services.

Susan Church, a Cambridge immigration attorney, said it is “mind-boggling” that children and adults who do not speak English are expected to navigate the notoriously complicated area of immigration law without a lawyer. She said one study found three-quarters of children appear in immigration court without legal counsel.

“We are overwhelmed with requests,” Church said at Monday’s press conference. “This fund is really the only answer to this brutal, demonizing process that these immigrants are going through.”

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McGovern said Cambridge’s city attorney determined that the use of taxpayer money for the fund would violate the law.

Because they are among the so-called “sanctuary cities” condemned by the Trump administration, Cambridge and Somerville were also concerned that direct governmental support for the fund could antagonize the administration and prompt it to withhold federal aid, said Geeta Pradhan, president and chief executive of Cambridge Community Foundation.

Still, McGovern indicated public support for the fund may be possible.

“I think there are often legal ways to do things that we could figure out,” McGovern said, adding that he would work with the city manager to “see how the city can be more directly supportive.”

Even though Cambridge and Somerville are not committing public money, Curtatone said the involvement of the mayors’ offices is critical because they are often the first places immigrants call when they need legal help.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.