The 'giving circle' raises and grants money to people dealing with the federal immigration system.

FILE - People holding flags and signs march in support of Hillsboro declaring itself a sanctuary city in February 2017.A local group is raising money to help pay the legal fees of people in western Washington County who are working their way through the immigration system.

Defensa de la Dignidad, or "Defense of Dignity" launched in July. The organization helps people going through the immigration process, by raising money for legal costs, according to member and co-founder Linda Mokler.

"The immigration system is difficult to navigate when you are separated from your support network," Mokler said last week. "The courts are confusing even for those of us who are native to this country. Oftentimes, these people are doing this in a second language and going up against trained government attorneys."

So far, the group has started small. It has collected only a few thousand dollars, and its membership list includes only about two dozen people — including Hillsboro City Councilors Kyle Allen and Olivia Alcaire.

The group has been growing through a grass-roots movement of house parties and word of mouth, Mokler said.

Last year, the Hillsboro City Council voted in a split decision to formally declare Hillsboro a sanctuary city, a symbolic vote Mayor Steve Callaway said sent a signal to Hillsboro's sizable immigrant community that the city stands with them.

Defensa de la Dignidad formed to echo that sentiment, said Mokler, a longtime community activist.

"We wanted to make a difference," Mokler said. "This is something that isn't happening. Nobody is there during this time in their lives."

Defensa uses a "giving circle" approach to raising money. Mokler calls it "person-to-person philanthropy."

The group operates through the national nonprofit Members of the organization nominate people they believe would benefit for Defensa's help. The group votes together on which nominees to fund, then pools money together for that individual.

"I call it the (National Public Radio) model," she said. "We suggest a donation of $5 per month, or $60 annually, but we'll take any increment."

The organization gave a $745 grant to a high school student in Hillsboro to help her file a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals application. The federal program, often referred to by its acronym DACA, offers temporary legal status to young people illegally brought to the United States as children.

"These people are going into courtrooms that dramatically impact them and everyone around them for decades," Mokler said.

The group hopes to work with people in all stages of the immigration system, Mokler said.

"We don't want to wait for people to be incarcerated before we find them," she said. "Often, helping them to file their visa or DACA paperwork is good prevention."

Paying for something relatively inexpensive, such as filing the right paperwork, can make a difference in someone's lives, Mokler said.

"For now, we're concentrating on triage," she said. "There are things that are immediate, where we can get people out and circle the wagons and have a fighting chance."

To help more people, Defensa members are building up the group's coffers to offer larger grants.

"To do that, we want to increase our membership," Mokler said. "Eventually, we'd love to have matching grants from local employers, as well."

For now, Defensa is only working with immigrants from Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Cornelius and North Plains, Mokler said.

For many families, paying for legal fees isn't possible, Mokler said, particularly if families have more than one person going through the immigration process at a time.

"Helping to pay for those expenses just seemed like the fair thing to do," Mokler said. "It's something we would want to do for our neighbors."

By Geoff Pursinger
Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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