San Diego County is now the first border region in the United States to provide free legal representation for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers facing deportation.
“We are declaring with one voice that our justice system must be based on facts and law, not access to wealth and resources,” said County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer.
The Immigrant Defense Program, which was proposed by Lawson-Remer, was approved in May 2021. It took almost a year for the county to contract with organizations that will provide legal help free to eligible immigrants.
The county has committed $5 million annually to fund the program. It was approved by a 3-2 vote among supervisors.
“To me, this is a federal issue and unfortunately, not the financial responsibility of a local county government,” said Supervisor Jim Desmond, who voted against the plan.
At a news conference in front of the County Administration Building on Thursday, attorneys and immigration advocates praised the landmark program.
“Our program is established not to promote illegal immigration but exactly the opposite. It’s meant to promote the lawful application of our immigration laws and the due process within the four walls of all our courtrooms in San Diego County,” said Michael Garcia, Chief Deputy Public Defender and Director of the Office of Assigned Counsel for the County of San Diego.
Garcia said each case that goes through the system costs an average of $7,000, but costs can vary.
He added that in San Diego county, only 17% of individuals are represented by legal counsel. He said for those with an attorney, success rate is 4%.
With an attorney, detainees are up to 10 times more likely to get relief from deportation, according to immigration attorney Andrew Nietor.
“That means not being deported, not being separated from their families, perhaps not being returned to a country where they face persecution or death,” said Nietor.
The county has contracted with three immigration law organizations to provide for services for detained immigrants: The American Bar Association Immigration Justice Project, Jewish Family Service and the Southern California Immigration Project.
For now, attorneys say about 12 people have been accepted into the program.
That number is actually lower than anticipated and Lawson-Remer says it’s possible the program could be available to other immigration groups beyond just those who are detained.
Attorneys say the will pass out flyers at detention centers to help get the word out on the availability of the free legal services.
Here are the phone numbers for the contracted service providers:
- The ABA Immigration Justice Project - 619 736-3315
- The Southern California Immigration Project - 619 516-8119
- Jewish Family Service - 858 516-3365