A growing number of localities with burgeoning communities of immigrants are devoting public funds to provide legal aid to those undocumented residents who face deportation. That's admirable and fair: Without such programs, even more migrants would get steamrolled in immigration proceedings where, lacking any right to legal representation, their chances of avoiding deportation orders are slim. Still, local elected officials should proceed cautiously if they are to fulfill the aim of such programs — to protect immigrant communities — and avoid a voter backlash.
Advocates point out the stark difference in success rates for migrants who go before immigration judges with and without lawyers. Those who appear solo have next to no chance of prevailing — as little as 3%, according to some experts. Those with lawyers increase their odds of avoiding deportation tenfold.
That has been prompting jurisdictions including Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Sacramento — and some in the Washington, D.C., region — to allocate modest funds to provide such migrants with counsel. Another impetus is the Trump administration's intensified deportation push, which has swept up tens of thousands of unauthorized immigrants with relatively clean records — those generally left alone in the later years of the Obama administration — as well as others with serious criminal convictions.
That distinction matters in policy terms and politically. It's legitimate to help immigrants threatened by deportation on the grounds that they are often productive, long-standing members of established communities. It makes less sense to devote taxpayer dollars to defending undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of serious and violent crimes. Those immigrants may be a threat to the very same communities.
Politically, advocates for undocumented immigrants do no favors for their cause, nor for immigrants fighting deportation, by making no distinction between law-abiding immigrants and those convicted of serious crimes. Many ordinary Americans who may be sympathetic to the former will see no reason the latter should remain in the United States — and certainly not with the aid of public dollars.
For that reason, Montgomery County, Maryland's largest locality, was wise to disqualify undocumented immigrants from receiving county-funded legal aid when they had prior convictions for serious crimes such as fraud, carjacking, burglary and heroin distribution.
Fairfax County, Virginia's largest locality, this year approved a similar legal-aid pilot program; it too would likely exclude some convicted criminals seeking to avoid deportation from eligibility. In both cases, the programs are small — $370,000 in Montgomery; $200,000 in Fairfax — so why not devote those scarce resources to the much larger population of law-abiding immigrants?
With the United States' foreign-born population now at a 100-year high, it's hard enough to make the case for shielding undocumented immigrants from the Trump administration's newly empowered and aggressive deportation agents. Asking taxpayers to foot the bill for the relatively few felons among them is a losing strategy that plays into the hands of immigration hard-liners.
This editorial is the opinion of The Washington Post's editorial board.