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Vote Makes S.D. First Border County in U.S. to Provide Legal Representation for Immigrants

SAN DIEGO — The County Board of Supervisors approved a plan by Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer today that will make San Diego the first southern border county in the United States with a program to provide legal representation for immigrants facing removal proceedings. The initiative will help address the current backlog in immigration courts, while also saving taxpayer dollars and supporting the local economy.

“Our justice system should be based on facts and law, not access to wealth and resources. Everyone in this nation, whether a citizen or not, has an established right under our constitution to be represented by legal counsel, and this program will help immigrants afford the ability to have a fair day in court,” said Supervisor Lawson-Remer, who is also an attorney.

The program will fund attorneys to represent detained immigrants in San Diego County. It will start as a $5 million one-year pilot project, and eventually grow to be a permanent resource that is housed in the San Diego County Office of the Public Defender and works in partnership with regional immigrant defense agencies and non-profits.

“Three of my great-grandparents fled to the U.S. to escape the torture and mass killings of Jews in Europe, and one hundred years later our country is still a beacon of hope for people fleeing persecution. 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,” Lawson-Remer said.

Without expert legal advice, individuals are left to navigate the vast complexities of immigration law on their own. 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. They are left to defend themselves in a notoriously complex system against the U.S. government, which is always represented by legal counsel.

The proposal was praised by the American Civil Liberties Union and prominent immigrant rights organizations.

“Making quality legal representation available to immigrants facing removal proceedings is essential to living up to the fundamental principles of the U.S. constitution, which establishes due process and the right to a fair trial,” said Norma Chávez-Peterson , Executive Director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “San Diego County Supervisor Lawson-Remer and the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties are taking a bold step with this robust immigrant legal defense program, establishing the region as a leader in fairness and equality.” 

“The stakes of immigration proceedings can be literally life and death. Deportations are dividing families and destroying communities,” said Kate Clark, Jewish Family Service of San Diego’s senior director of immigration services. “All too often immigrants proceed with their cases unrepresented and are at a loss to navigate a system which often confounds even the experts. Legal representation is more crucial than ever and Jewish Family Service stands in full support of the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program.”

“As the devastating impacts of a public health crisis meet the harms inflicted by systemic racism and decades of anti-immigrant attacks, the accumulation of injustices facing immigrant communities has reached a tipping point. We welcome the current proposal for a universal representation program for immigrants detained in San Diego County – a program that is urgently needed to protect immigrants, keep families together, and provide a path forward for a bold vision of immigrant justice,” said Liz Kenney, Associate Program Director for the SAFE Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice.

“Our country, and this region, have a long and shameful history of neglect and discrimination against immigrant communities. Our choices have torn families apart, and have resulted in countless unjust deportations, including those of people seeking asylum” said Anjleena Kour Sahni with the Invest in San Diego Families Coalition. “Access to due process and meaningful representation is a human right, it is past time for San Diego County to begin doing the right thing for immigrant communities, and we are glad to see the County taking this step forward. ISDF is proud to have collaborated on this effort led by our coalition partner, ACLU, and Supervisor Lawson-Remer.”

The rights of immigrants to be represented by an attorney is well established. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law[.]” The Supreme Court in 1993 clarified that the Fifth Amendment entitles immigrants to due process of law in deportation proceedings (Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 306). In 2010, the Supreme Court decided that the right to counsel provided by the Sixth Amendment applies to deportation proceedings (Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356). The Immigration and Nationality Act likewise establishes that immigrants in removal proceedings, such as those facing deportation and appearing before an immigration judge, have the right to be represented by counsel.

However, legal fees can be extremely costly and often become burdensome on families. Only 5 percent of individuals facing deportation won their case without a lawyer, while those with legal representation are four times more likely to be successful.

Difficulties accessing legal counsel contributes to backlogs in immigration courts, where more than one million cases are pending nationwide. Poor-quality legal representation clogs immigration dockets and increases the workload of immigration judges, while quality legal counsel creates “a more professional atmosphere in which the government is held to its required level of proof,” according to the interviews conducted by the National Immigration Law Center.

There are high costs of keeping individuals in immigration detention at the public’s expense. Taxpayers spent $2 billion on the detention of immigrants in the Fiscal Year 2016 federal budget. This cost would decline with programs to move people more efficiently through the system, such as adequate legal counsel.

Communities experience a significant loss in economic activity and reduction of tax revenue when immigrants are detained. According to the American Immigration Council, immigrants in detention with legal representation who had a custody hearing were four times more likely to be released from detention, allowing them to return to their jobs, family and community while they awaited the results of their legal matter. Legal representation has also been shown to help immigrants gain or maintain their legal work authorization, thus contributing to federal, state, and local tax revenue.

Only 17 percent of detainees in San Diego have legal representation, according to the American Immigration Council. While San Diego County has many hard-working immigrant attorneys and organizations working to represent immigrants, many of these organizations lack adequate resources to address the volume of cases.

The San Diego County Office of the Public Defender currently provides criminal legal defense services to the region, and its Office of Assigned Counsel already provides similar services that require contracting with outside attorneys.

County staff will report back in 90 days with a plan to permanently fund and operate the program.


Media Contacts:
Spencer Katz, [email protected]
(858) 289-9205