San Diego lawmakers criticize county taxpayer-funded lawyers for migrants in US

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 in May 2021 to provide legal representation for immigrants facing deportation proceedings

San Diego County Admin Building

Two San Diego County supervisors are raising concerns about a county-funded legal defense program for immigrants, saying it is spending taxpayer dollars to defend migrants who are in the country illegally and accused of sometimes-serious criminal offenses.

Supervisor Jim Desmond, in a statement Wednesday, said he was "appalled at the findings" of a newly released report assessing the program's first 15 months of operation.

"Let me be clear: immigration is not, and should not be, San Diego County's responsibility," Desmond said. "This program grants special treatment to individuals who have chosen to bypass our immigration laws, including some of the most egregious offenders."

Desmond said the report's findings "demonstrate that this program has failed to meet its intended goals."

"It should serve as an eye-opener to many San Diegans who are witnessing their hard-earned tax dollars used to defend individuals with serious criminal records," Desmond added. "This program must be stopped immediately."

In a statement released Tuesday, Supervisor Joel Anderson said he was "disappointed to learn that funding is going to provide free legal defense for non-citizens with very serious criminal charges."

Program organizers had no immediate response to the comments.

The Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program was started in April 2022, and features an advisory panel of local immigration attorneys, regional immigrant rights officials and county government representatives.

On Tuesday, the county's Public Defender Office of Assigned Counsel and Public Safety Group released a report assessing the program's first 15 months of operation from April 2022 to June 2023. The 25-page report features client data and demographics, immigration court processes, program costs and success stories, among other topics.

According to the report summary, the program "has made significant strides in its mission to provide legal representation to detained immigrants facing removal proceedings."

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 in May 2021 to provide legal representation for immigrants facing deportation proceedings. Supervisors also approved $5 million to fund the program, as part of a one-year pilot project.

The program eventually became permanent as part of the San Diego County Office of the Public Defender, in partnership with regional immigrant defense agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer introduced the motion creating the program, which she said would help address the backlog in immigration courts and "strengthen our values as Americans."

Lawson-Remer, Nora Vargas and then-Supervisor Nathan Fletcher voted in favor of the program, while Anderson and Desmond were opposed. Although the county board seats officially nonpartisan, three Democrats supported the proposal, while the two Republicans were opposed.

Lawson-Remer issued a statement Wednesday expressing her support for the program.

"Our Constitution guarantees the right to representation and a fair day in court," Lawson-Remer said in the statement. "The Immigrant Legal Defense Program is successfully achieving its purpose by helping immigration courts process nearly 800 cases, including women being trafficked, refugee children from Iraq and people who were beaten by the Colombian military; with legal outcomes ranging from dismissal to deportation. I will continue to support and fight for this program."

According to Anderson's office, although the new report doesn't offer specifics, 34 people in the immigrant defense program are charged with offenses such as drug trafficking, money laundering, aggravated felony convictions and crimes "involving moral turpitude, which could include murder, rape, aggravated assault, child abuse (or) domestic violence."

Anderson said the county should be prioritizing public safety, the homeless and fentanyl crises, wildfire safety and mental health services.

"Protecting my constituents means safeguarding both immigrants and citizens alike from becoming victimized, not helping criminals become U.S. citizens," he added.

Anderson said he will introduce a board letter at a future meeting asking for clarification about exactly what types of crimes clients in the defense program have been charged with.

Anderson said he also wants to know whether the county will continue to represent immigration court defendants "with serious criminal convictions that may preclude them from becoming U.S. citizens."

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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