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Border & Immigration

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer Proposes Immigrant Legal Defense Program

County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer speaks at a news conference outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center announcing the proposed Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program, April 27, 2021.
Matthew Bowler
County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer speaks at a news conference outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center announcing the proposed Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program, April 27, 2021.

San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer introduced a plan Tuesday intended to 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 proposed initiative — the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program — is intended to help address the current backlog in immigration courts, while also saving taxpayer dollars and supporting the local economy.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer Proposes Immigrant Legal Defense Program
Listen to this story by Cristina Kim.

The program as proposed would fund attorneys to represent detained immigrants in San Diego County. It would start as a $5 million one-year pilot project and eventually grow to be a permanent resource housed in the San Diego County Office of the Public Defender and work in partnership with regional immigrant defense agencies and nonprofits.

"Our justice system should be based on facts and law, not access to wealth and resources," said Lawson-Remer, who is also an attorney. "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.

"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," she continued. "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."

Mustafe Hassan, a refugee from Ethiopia, speaks at a news conference outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center announcing the proposed Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program, April 27, 2021. Hassan was held at the center before getting legal help to win his case.
Matthew Bowler
Mustafe Hassan, a refugee from Ethiopia, speaks at a news conference outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center announcing the proposed Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program, April 27, 2021. Hassan was held at the center before getting legal help to win his case.

Without legal advice, individuals can be left to navigate the complexities of immigration law on their own. The lack of appointed counsel means tens of thousands of people each year go unrepresented, including asylum seekers, longtime residents, immigrant parents, spouses of U.S. citizens and children. Legal fees can be costly and often burdensome or completely inaccessible to families, Lawson- Remer said.

"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 Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

According to a 2015 study that looked at 1.2 million deportation cases between 2007 and 2012, individuals with legal representation are 10 times more likely to not be deported compared to individuals without counsel

It’s something Mustafe Hassan, a refugee from Ethiopia, knows intimately. He was able to access legal help from the Partnership for Advancing New Americans while he was detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center.

“Through that attorney and that help and that guidance, that’s how my case succeeded [and] that’s how I got my green card,” Hassan said through an interpreter. “And now I am working and I am in good condition.”

"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," said Liz Kenney, associate program director for the SAFE Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice. "If passed, San Diego County would join a growing movement of over 43 cities, counties, and states across the country fighting for the health, freedom, and due process of immigrants facing detention or deportation."

Video: Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer Proposes Immigrant Legal Defense Program

Lawson-Remer says she’s particularly interested in learning from Alameda’s program in order to scale up and deploy the program in San Diego County.

Alameda County in Northern California instituted the state’s first public defender immigration defense program in 2014.

Helmed by immigration attorney Raha Jorjani, Alameda’s immigration representation project has slowly grown to meet demand from a single attorney to six attorneys and legal secretary over the past 7 years.

“We can’t stand idly by until we get something in congress passed to give everybody right counsel,” Jojani said. “And what we’ve seen since then is an emergence of local governments coming together and saying until the federal government, the federal government should act, but until it does these are our same people, these our same community members...and we have to stand up for them.”

Difficulties accessing legal counsel contribute to backlogs in immigration courts, where more than one million cases are pending nationwide, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

Detention is also a costly problem, Lawson-Remer said. Taxpayers spent $2 billion on the detention of immigrants in the Fiscal Year 2016 federal budget.

Michael Garcia, chief deputy at the Office of the Public Defender, believes streamlining the court process makes both moral and fiscal sense.

“As a border community we have a responsibility to make sure that that justice prevails in our adversarial immigration courts,” Garcia said. “It’s the socially moral thing to do and at the same time it’s economically prudent for our businesses and our tax base.”

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. Only 17% of detainees in San Diego have legal representation, according to the council.

A vote on the whether to move forward with the program is scheduled for May 4. Lawson-Remer is optimistic about the proposal passing, but knows there’s still operational obstacles ahead.

“The work to actually build out and stand up this program is going to be where the rubber hits the road,” Lawson-Remer said. If the pilot program is approved, staff will report back in 90 days with a plan to permanently fund and operate the program.