With the goal of helping the east metro’s growing immigrant populations in a changing legal environment, St. Paul and Ramsey County are taking a two-fold approach toward immigrant services.
They have received a matching grant for a new $250,000 legal defense fund, which will soon be used to hire a private law firm to support defendants in immigration cases.
And the city and county have each hired an immigration expert to work in-house and assist their legal offices.
Both strategies stake new ground for St. Paul — where one in five residents is foreign-born — and Ramsey County, which have never before waded so deeply into the flashpoint issue of immigration. Among other responsibilities, the experts will provide guidance to policymakers on how city and county services — including prosecution — might impact some of the region’s most vulnerable residents.
Edmundo Lijo, an immigration attorney who once served as a prosecutor in the border community of El Paso, Texas, will join the St. Paul City Attorney’s office June 3.
Lijo’s role is still being defined, but he’ll likely advise city departments, as well as the 47 assistant city attorneys in the office, on how their work impacts immigrants.
That means, in part, informing city prosecutors about “collateral consequences” of prosecution, such as deportation, City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said in an interview Friday.
“He is not representing private clients,” Olson said. “He will be assisting prosecutors in advising on collateral consequences for folks facing criminal prosecution … and how we can as a city better serve immigrant populations. For instance, wage theft. They’re vulnerable to being taken advantage of through employment, and they’re at higher risk for crime, because people know that if they’re in certain immigration statuses, they might not report (crimes against them to authorities).”
Olson added that city officials are prepared for Lijo’s role to change.
“We’re open to how this program is going to evolve,” she said. “We feel like it’s a continuing dialogue, and we want it to be a meaningful connection. This is an exciting beginning to great things to come to connecting our immigrant communities to St. Paul in a more meaningful way.”
Lijo, who holds a law degree from the University of Minnesota, has spent about 20 years running a St. Paul-based private practice, representing individuals, businesses, nonprofits and religious organizations before the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the U.S. Department of Labor.
Prior to that, he was an assistant county attorney in the El Paso County Hospital District, where he focused on health care law and employment law for a public hospital on the U.S.-Mexico border. He is fluent in Spanish.
He’s also the past chair of the Immigration Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association.
St. Paul City Council member Chris Tolbert, a practicing attorney, said the city attorney’s office made a strong choice.
“I was really impressed by the hire,” Tolbert said. “Of the people that applied, it was just an all-star cast of immigration lawyers. … Because of the presidential administration that we have right now, immigration law changes on the daily. We need to have someone of this expertise. It’s obviously a new position, (and will require) defining exactly how the new lawyer can be the most useful to the city and the community.”
Ramsey County in February hired Jorge Saavedra, the former executive director of Centro Legal and the Headwaters Foundation for Justice, to join the county attorney’s office.
Saavedra also is advising prosecutors about collateral consequences, a goal that was made explicit in January by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s office.
Dennis Gerhardstein, a spokesman for the Ramsey County Attorney’s office, said Saavedra is assigned to the Victim, Witness and Community Services Division. His duties include sentencing hearings and work on post-conviction issues such as criminal record expungements, pardon requests and “U visas,” which are visas issued to immigrant victims of serious crimes who are willing to assist law enforcement with prosecutions.
Hiring advisers is only part of St. Paul and Ramsey County’s new approach.
With matching funds from the New York-based Vera Institute, the city and county have raised $250,000 to contract a private firm to provide legal defense to immigrants facing deportation or tied up in other immigration-related matters. A request for proposals will be issued within a few weeks.
The city and county will host a joint community session from 3:30-5 p.m. on May 22 at the Hallie Q. Brown Center at 270 N. Kent St. for feedback on the immigrant legal defense fund. From 5-6:30 p.m., the county will host a “pre-solicitation” conference about its upcoming request for proposals related to contracts for community engagement services.
Olson delivered a presentation on her office’s immigration-related work to the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday, and the decision to hire Lijo was well-received.
Council members expressed some concern, however, over how open-ended his job duties appear to be.
“If we’re going to branch out into new areas, I think we really need to be clear and accountable about what that looks like,” said council member Jane Prince, whose East Side district includes large immigrant populations from Africa, Asia and Latin America. “If we’re going to do new initiatives, I think we have to clearly define what the goals are and what are the outcomes that are going to determine success. I’m really excited about what I’ve heard about this lawyer that we’ve hired.”
Council member Rebecca Noecker, who represents areas of the West Side with a large and longstanding Latino presence, said she also looked forward to concrete results.
“It sounds like a lot of the work has yet to be defined, partly because he’s being seen as a subject matter expert and is helping to craft the work himself,” Noecker said. “We don’t yet have performance duties and a work plan and expected outcomes. This is a totally new program that we budgeted for.”
The foreign-born population of Ramsey County has increased over the past decade, following a general uptick in racial and ethnic diversity.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 15.6 percent of Ramsey County was foreign-born as of 2017, compared to 11.7 percent in 2009. In St. Paul, more than 19 percent of the population is foreign-born.
Latinos and people of color made up 37 percent of the county population in 2017, up from 27.8 percent in 2009. In St. Paul, they made up 48 percent of the population.