County to provide attorneys to immgrants facing deportation
San Diego County will provide attorneys to immigrants facing deportation proceedings under a pilot program approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.
The 3-2 vote orders work to begin on a $5 million, one-year pilot program administered through the county’s public defender’s office. It would provide lawyers for free to those detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, the local federal immigration detention facility.
Supervisors Jim Desmond and Joel Anderson voted against the proposal. “This is a federal matter, and we should be communicating with them for more support,” Desmond said.
County staff will have 90 days to report back on a plan to fund and operate the program permanently in partnership with immigrant defense and nonprofit groups.
San Diego would be the first southern border county in the United States to provide legal representation for those in federal immigration custody who are facing removal proceedings, although more than 40 other places nationwide have implemented similar programs.
The Vera Institute of Justice has partnered with 22 local governments to create publicly funded programs through its SAFE Initiative to bring universal representation to immigration court.
“Three of my great-grandparents fled to the U.S. to escape the torture and mass killings of Jews in Europe, and 100 years later our country is still a beacon of hope for people fleeing persecution,” Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, who proposed the measure, said in a statement. “When we keep America’s promise of equal justice for all, we give immigrants dignity, we make the legal system more efficient, and we strengthen our values as Americans.”
While people charged with crimes are provided government-appointed attorneys if they are unable to afford their own representation, the same is not true in immigration court.
That’s because immigration is considered a civil legal matter rather than a criminal one.
And while people waiting for immigration-court cases can only legally be held in custody if they are considered flight risks or dangerous to society, in reality, many end up stuck inside because they do not have help navigating the bureaucracy of steps to get released.
The National Association of Immigration Judges has advocated for having more attorneys representing the people who come before them in court because, the judges say, it makes the system more efficient.
Those with legal representation are four times more likely to be released from detention, according to an academic study published by the American Immigration Council.
Only 17 percent of detainees in San Diego have such representation, according to the council.
“The lack of appointed counsel means that tens of thousands of people each year go unrepresented, including asylum seekers, longtime legal residents, immigrant parents, spouses of U.S. citizens, and even children,” said a statement from Lawson-Remer’s office. “They are left to defend themselves in a notoriously complex system.”
The problem contributes to immigration court backlogs, with more than 1 million cases pending nationwide, increases taxpayer costs for detention and harms the local economy by keeping immigrants locked up instead of allowing them to continue working and staying with their families while awaiting outcomes of their cases, Lawson-Remer said.