San Diego County is now the first border region in the United States to offer free legal representation to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers facing deportation.
“We declare with one voice that our justice system must be based on facts and laws, not on access to wealth and resources,” said County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer.
The Immigrant Advocacy Program, which was proposed by Lawson-Remer, was approved in May 2021. It took the county nearly a year to contract with organizations that will provide free legal aid to eligible immigrants.
The county has committed $5 million per year to fund the program. It was approved by a 3 to 2 vote among supervisors.
“To me, this is a federal matter and unfortunately not the fiscal responsibility of a local county government,” said Supervisor Jim Desmond, who voted against the plan.
At a press conference outside the County Administration Building on Thursday, immigration lawyers and advocates praised the historic program.
“Our program is established not to promote illegal immigration, but exactly the opposite. It is intended to promote the legal enforcement of our immigration laws and the rule of law within the four walls of all of our San Diego County courtrooms,” said Michael Garcia, Deputy Chief Public Defender and Director of the Office of Court-appointed Lawyers for San County. 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 people are represented by an attorney. He said that for those who have a lawyer, the success rate is 4%.
With a lawyer, detainees are up to 10 times more likely to get a waiver of deportation, according to immigration lawyer Andrew Nietor.
“That means not being deported, not being separated from his family, maybe not being sent back to a country where he faces persecution or death,” Nietor said.
The county has contracted with three immigration law organizations to provide services to detained immigrants: the American Bar Association Immigration Justice Project, Jewish Family Service, and the Southern California Immigration Project.
So far, lawyers say about 12 people have been accepted into the program.
That number is actually lower than expected, and Lawson-Remer says it’s possible the program will be available to other immigrant groups beyond those who are detained.
Lawyers say they will distribute flyers at detention centers to help publicize the availability of free legal services.
Here are the phone numbers for 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