Bexar County Commissioners Court approved $1 million Tuesday to fund legal services for immigrants facing potential deportation.

The move comes as the city and county are both exploring new ways to support people who’ve entered the country seeking asylum, but then find themselves navigating a legal process that even immigration lawyers find confusing and intimidating.

Earlier this year the city of San Antonio approved a plan to spend some of its federal pandemic relief funds on groups that help immigrants seeking permanent legal status. The money will come from the county’s general fund, likely compiled of previously allocated but unused funds.

“There are people who are coming to our state, our city, our country, under the most dire circumstances,” said Commissioner Justin Rodriguez (Pct. 2), who proposed the legal services fund. “Anything that we can do, I think, to unify and strengthen families, is the right thing to do.”

Commissioners Court staff estimates that Bexar County is home to roughly 278,700 immigrants who make up about 12% of the population. Roughly 6,880 immigrants are currently in need of legal services, including some immigrants who are detained and facing potential deportation.

The proposal came at the request of a network of nonprofit groups that support immigrants seeking permanent residency.

Their representatives packed the court Tuesday to discuss their experiences helping immigrants who, they say, often have valid cases to stay in the country under current asylum law, but face high deportation rates when they lack legal representation in court.

“Working with children every day, I see firsthand the harm caused by those who face prolonged detention, family separation and the lack of legal representation,” said Veronica Rodriguez, managing attorney at The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.

“The vast majority of the recently arrived unaccompanied children are eligible for legal relief,” said Rodriguez. “Unfortunately, most of them appear in immigration court without an attorney.”

San Antonio is home to a number of nonprofit groups that aim to help migrants with everything from food and clothing to job training and legal defense.

Critics of the city and county’s recent moves question whether local government should be spending money to aid migrants.

“Everybody has a unique opinion on this,” Rodriguez said in an interview after the meeting.

“From my perspective, I think we do have a role to play from a local government standpoint,” he said. “But I don’t have any qualms with people who disagree with that.”

The court approved Tuesday’s measure passed 4-1. Commissioner Marialyn Barnard (Pct. 3), a Republican who once ran to oversee the county children’s court, cast the lone no vote.

Acknowledging the immigrants’ rights activists at the meeting, Barnard told them she appreciated their work, but opposed the fund “because we have a lot of other needs for our residents in Bexar County.”

Rodriguez said the county would likely have to bring on outside help to administer the funds to the nonprofits, though details of the plan are still being worked out.

Pointing to similar effort in Harris County, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Tuesday’s move was a “big step” for the court, but that local governments have had to take on new roles because of a failure on the part of the federal government “to handle these cases in appropriate manner.”

“We can do these things, we can help, but until laws are changed in the nation’s capitol it’s going to continue to be a terrible, terrible system,” said Wolff.

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.