New County Legal Program by Supervisor Lawson-Remer Aided Nearly 800 in First 15 Months

News Date

San Diego County’s Immigrant Legal Defense Program (IRLDP) is working, just like Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer had envisioned when she authored and passed the policy in 2021. Nearly 800 San Diegans have received free, constitutionally afforded access to an attorney to represent them in removal proceedings. The case results have been everything from dismissal to deportation.

“Our constitution guarantees the right to representation and a fair day in court. The Immigrant Legal Defense Program is successfully achieving its purpose,” said Supervisor Lawson-Remer. “We help everyone, including women who fled their country because they were being trafficked, refugee children and people unfairly targeted by their country’s military. We’re offering free representation, and leaving it to the judges to make the right call on each case.”

The San Diego County Public Defender Office operates IRLDP in collaboration with ABA Immigrant Justice Project and Immigrant Defenders Law Center and 23 panel attorneys. 

Historically, the lack of appointed counsel means that tens of thousands of people each year go unrepresented in court proceedings — including asylum seekers, longtime legal residents, immigrant parents, spouses of U.S. citizens, and even children. More than eight out of 10 people facing deportation in San Diego County go unrepresented in immigration court.

The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties fought tirelessly alongside the Invest in San Diego Families (ISDF) coalition, with the support of Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer to establish this program in 2022.

“The groundbreaking San Diego County Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program helps to close the justice gap in the federal immigration court system and make our county more just and humane. By creating access to counsel, this program provides immigrants in our region a fair chance at rejoining their families, winning their freedom and seeking relief from deportation,” said Norma Chávez-Peterson, Executive Director, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “The Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program has proven itself an essential public resource for helping to ensure justice and due process for all San Diegans. San Diego County is a better and stronger region when we treat everyone fairly and with dignity.”

San Diego became the nation’s first border county to provide free legal representation for immigrants facing removal proceedings when the Board of Supervisors passed Supervisor Lawson-Remer’s policy in 2021. 

IRLDP clients are most commonly from Mexico and Colombia, but other countries where clients are fleeing include Haiti, Nigeria, Russia, China, Afghanistan, Brazil, Jamaica. There were 62 different primary languages spoken by individuals seeking representation from IRLDP.

Supervisor Lawson-Remer’s two Republican colleagues have attempted to generate fear amongst San Diegans by highlighting that 34-people or just five percent of the clients have been charged with criminal activity, even though the overwhelming majority of charges are for illegal entry without valid documents. The program works to help good actors to get their cases dismissed and deport criminals not eligible for Asylum.   

“I am not sure why Supervisors Anderson and Desmond are second-guessing the decision of judges,” Supervisor Lawson-Remer said. “We are a country of immigrants, but somewhere along the way they forgot their families are also not originally from here.

“Their comments are akin to the racist remarks made by Donald Trump who has called Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists, said Haitian immigrants have AIDS, and told Nigerian Immigrants to go back to their huts. I’m really disappointed they would take such a divisive stance. They should be ashamed.”    

Detainees with legal counsel are more likely to be released, allowing them to return to their jobs, families, and community while they await the results of their legal matter. In 2019, immigrants composed 27% of the state's total population and contributed $37.7 billion to California's state and local taxes, $77.7 billion to federal taxes, and had $291 billion in spending power. (Link)

The recently released inaugural annual report of the results covers the first 15 months of the program for cases opened April 1, 2022, through June 30, 2023.

Those seeking legal representation should seek assistance by calling 619-446-2883, Monday - Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Translation services are available.  

To learn more, visit