San Diego County launches immigrant legal defense program
Article by: Kate Morrissey
San Diego County began providing free attorneys for immigration cases earlier this month after the Board of Supervisors voted last year to fund such a program.
That makes San Diego the first county along the U.S.-Mexico border to offer pro bono legal representation to immigrants, asylum seekers and anyone else facing potential deportation in immigration court. According to Vera Institute of Justice, there are more than 50 places in 21 states funding similar deportation defense programs.
Though people facing potential deportation in immigration court have a right to an attorney, that is only if they can afford one. It is only in the criminal justice system that attorneys are provided for free to people who can’t pay them. The San Diego program, initially proposed and championed by Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, will allow anyone held in immigration detention in San Diego County to request free legal help.
“Everyone in this nation — everyone — has the right to a fair day in court,” Lawson-Remer said at a news conference Thursday celebrating the program’s launch. “This is going to change lives.”
She said that providing attorneys to people with immigration cases will cut court costs by reducing the burden on judges and cut detention costs by getting more people out of immigration custody.
When someone appears without an attorney, an immigration judge has to work to ensure that person understands everything that is happening in an extremely complex legal procedure. When someone has an attorney, the attorney does that work outside of the courtroom.
Andrew Nietor, an immigration attorney with Southern California Immigration Project who will be among those taking clients for the county program, said that people in immigration detention who have lawyers are four times more likely to get released on bond than those without.
“Immigration law is particularly complicated, and without an attorney it’s very hard to navigate that system,” Nietor said. “If you’re detained, it’s almost impossible.”
The program has a budget of $5 million, Lawson-Remer said, and aims to represent everyone in long-term immigration custody in San Diego. That means everyone held at Otay Mesa Detention Center, the local, privately-run immigration detention facility. The program is also including people who are on “alternatives to detention” such as ankle monitors in its eligibility pool.
If one of the program’s clients is released from detention, that person will remain a client for the duration of the case unless they move away from San Diego. The program does not disqualify potential clients based on criminal history.
The San Diego County Public Defender Office has contracted with three organizations — the American Bar Association Immigration Justice Project, Jewish Family Service and the Southern California Immigration Project — to provide representation. The office also plans to create a panel of private attorneys to supplement the work done by the three organizations as needed and is currently accepting applications.
Michael Garcia of the public defender’s office called the organizations the gold standard for immigration legal representation in San Diego County.
So far, the program has about 12 clients, according to Garcia.
Norma Chávez-Peterson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the program is a “historic milestone for civil and human rights in San Diego County.”
“The immigrant legal defense program makes our nation’s immigration system just a little bit more just and more humane,” Chávez-Peterson said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Muna Shegow, who fled with her daughter from Somalia in the 1990s, shared at the news conference her experience in the immigration system and how important having an attorney was for her.
She recalled the day more than a decade ago when immigration officers showed up early in the morning at her apartment and took her and her daughter into custody. They wanted to deport her to Somalia, where she knew that she and her daughter would be killed. Paperwork in her case had been mailed to an old address, and she had missed a court date.
Because she had an attorney, she was able to get her case reopened and stay in the United States.
“I’m so lucky I had an attorney,” Shegow said. “I don’t know what I would have done without help from my attorney.”
Lawson-Remer said that she hopes the program will eventually expand to universal representation for people in immigration court in the county.
Click here to view this article on the San Diego Union-Tribune website