Universal Representation: Behind a Public-Private Partnership Effort to Defend Immigrants

For people facing deportation, challenging the system without a lawyer rarely ends well. Of those who try, only around 3 percent secure a successful outcome. But what if a philanthropic backing for a public-private partnership could provide such immigrants with legal representation, raising their chances of success to 38 percent or higher? 

Now in its second year, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Network has achieved just that result. It draws on a range of private funders, seeking funding partnerships with local governments in both red and blue states. Public funding is the overall goal, with philanthropy as catalyst or supplement. As partisan rancor around immigration strains the very institutions of American democracy, SAFE, which draws support from a range of private funders, is one story of hope amid a whole lot of hand wringing. 

Like so many of philanthropy’s recent bids to protect immigrants, SAFE emerged as a response to the 2016 election and the Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance. But the idea got its start before that as a pilot in New York City called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which was funded entirely by the city with Vera as a facilitator. “After the election, a wave of deportation would ensue,” said Vera’s President Nicholas Turner. “We needed a protective buffer for people facing deportations. In New York, we showed that a projected 48 percent of cases would be successful if clients were provided with a lawyer.”

That initial success provided fuel for conversations between Turner and prospective donors about jumpstarting similar work in other cities. From the start, building partnerships with the public sector was the name of the game. “We want to create a line of defense for immigrants, and at the same time, develop political power behind that,” Turner told me. “To get city councils and mayors to do the same thing, but rapidly, together, and in the face of challenging policies.” 

So far, SAFE is providing legal services in 12 jurisdictions across 8 states, including red state metros like Atlanta, Austin (TX), and San Antonio. Other local jurisdictions include Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Columbus (OH), Dane County (WI), Prince George’s County (MD), Oakland/Alameda County (CA), Sacramento and Santa Ana (CA). While Turner and his colleagues are in the process of expanding that roster, it isn’t always easy. The difficulty in getting governments on board, he said, has less to do with SAFE’s merits and more to do with putting local dollars into what many consider a federal issue. 

There’s also the problem of universal representation. The reason obvious contenders like Los Angeles and New York City don’t appear on the current list is because their leaders only deem the model politically viable if it excludes certain groups, like those accused of violent crimes. “L.A. was an example of this, and even New York. When the mayor took [the program] over, he installed a carve-out,” Turner said. Vera’s stance that all detainees deserve representation goes back to racial equity. “Of the folks that tend to be carved out, people tend to be disproportionately black and brown,” Turner said. 

In some cases, cities have created separate funds to provide immigrants with representation. The L.A. Justice Fund, for instance, brought together the city and county of Los Angeles, as well as the Weingart Foundation and the California Community Foundation, which collectively granted $7.4 million toward that end.


So who’s actually funding SAFE? Aside from the public dollars each jurisdiction commits, national funders have given nearly $4 million for the program. Several of them, Turner says, were less involved in immigration before, but felt the need to step up following the 2016 election. They include Kresge, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the JPB Foundation and the Joyce Foundation. Early on, Vera also partnered with the Open Society Foundations as OSF rolled out rapid response funding to combat hate. 

Additional funders include Surdna and the 300 Foundation, as well as several anonymous donors. There’s also FWD.us, the 501(c)(4) advocacy group associated with Mark Zuckerberg and other figures from tech. FWD.us previously maintained its anonymity as a SAFE donor, but elected to come forward for this coverage.

A number of the same funders support other work at Vera. JPB, for instance, funds post-secondary education in prisons, while Surdna and Joyce provide general support. Joyce also funds some of Vera’s work on prosecution reform. OSF, meanwhile, has been one of Vera’s largest and most consistent supporters over the years.

Community foundations and other local funders may get involved once a specific city’s operation is up and running, but Vera doesn’t target them for grants. Instead, the focus is on building a national network with national funders that can catalyze SAFE’s expansion to additional jurisdictions. “The broader goal is to ensure a right to government-funded counsel for immigrants,” said SAFE program lead Annie Chen. “The idea that there’s a larger goal, that the network is part of a larger movement building toward a tipping point, is very appealing.”

Chen describes Vera’s process for selecting SAFE cities as a “race to the top” competition in which Vera reviews applicants for good policy (i.e., universal representation), programmatic sustainability, and geographic and political diversity. Interest seems to be growing. In a good sign for the initiative, more cities applied in 2018 than ended up receiving Vera’s support—including technical and legal aid, as well as a monetary component. In addition to getting cities to put skin in the game, Vera wants to create an evidence base and an “overarching comms strategy” to spread the word. Vera also wants to act as a resource hub so that interested city leaders can learn from those who’ve already taken a chance on the work.

Even as advocates call attention to the ways immigration enforcement and mass incarceration are connected, a rift remains between traditional criminal justice funding and the immigration space. When it comes to immigration, many donors are resistant to thinking about how they can fund anything but defense or rapid response, Turner said. Federal control of the immigration system has a lot to do with that. So does the perception of bipartisan potential in the criminal justice sphere—something that’s lacking on immigration. 

In the end, SAFE’s strategy is about building a political stakeholder class at the municipal level to champion the cause of universal legal representation. At a time when the federal policy climate is so hostile to immigrants, this important effort is another example of philanthropy focusing locally to help advocates score important goals.