HOUSTON (AP) — Texas' most populous county and one of the most diverse in the U.S. on Tuesday approved a plan to create and fund a program that will offer legal services for immigrants, including many who are in the country illegally and fighting deportation.
Harris County commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the Immigration Legal Services Program during a meeting in which community groups as well as religious and labor leaders spoke in favor of the program.
"Harris County benefits tremendously from the diversity, energy, and entrepreneurship that immigrants provide. If we're serious about being a county that puts families first, we can start by ensuring they're not torn apart by a daunting, broken, and unfair federal immigration system," said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county's top administrator.
The county, where Houston is located, has a population of more than 4.6 million people.
Over 25% of Harris County residents are foreign born, including an estimated 412,000 residents in the country illegally who account for nearly 10% of the county's labor force, officials said.
The county estimates it has more than 18,300 residents who are currently in need of legal representation, including large numbers of detained families and children.
"Everyone in our city deserves access to justice and the ability to plead their case in ways our Constitution guarantees," said Rabbi Oren Hayon, with Congregation Emanu El, one of the largest synagogues in Houston.
While most who spoke at the meeting were in favor of the program, a few were against it, saying it would provide taxpayer funded services for individuals who had broken immigration laws and committed other crimes.
The county joins the Texas cities of Austin, Dallas and San Antonio, as well as other U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore and Denver, that provide legal services for residents at risk of deportation.
The program will cost at least $500,000 to start up and it will be several months before it is designed and put in place, Hidalgo said.
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