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San Diego First Border County To Provide Free Legal Aid To People Facing Deportation

The sign at the entrance to the Otay Mesa Immigration and Detention Facility is pictured in San Diego, June 22, 2018.
Katie Schoolov
The sign at the entrance to the Otay Mesa Immigration and Detention Facility is pictured in San Diego, June 22, 2018.

San Diego County on Tuesday became the first border county in the nation to establish a program to provide free legal representation to people facing deportation.

In a 3-2 vote on Tuesday, the County Board of Supervisors approved the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program, a one-year, $5-million pilot program that will provide free legal counsel for deportation cases.

San Diego First Border County To Provide Free Legal Aid To People Facing Deportation
Listen to this story by Cristina Kim.

“Our justice system should be based on facts and laws not on access to wealth and resources,” says Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, who brought this proposal to the Board. She says this initiative is about making sure immigrants get “their fair day in court.”

According to the American Immigration Council, less than 17% of people detained in San Diego and facing deportation have access to legal counsel. This is in large part because people facing deportation often don’t have the funds or social networks to find and pay for legal services.

The county’s new program seeks to close that gap and make legal defense more accessible. It will be run through the Public Defender’s Office, which will work with local non-profits and immigrant defense organizations already providing services to detained clients.

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

San Diego First Border County To Provide Free Legal Aid To People Facing Deportation

The program drew overwhelming support from the 573 comments and over 120 people who called in during public comment.

Maria Flores from Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment urged the Board in Spanish through a translator to pass this initiative to help families like hers. She said she paid a lot of money for an attorney to represent a family member facing deportation that didn’t even show up in court.

“Other than having to deal with the economic repercussions of the situation,” Flores said. “We lost a family member that was deported and that created an extremely sad situation so from the bottom of my heart and my whole heart I ask that you support this for our families.”

Opposition came from residents who say such a program shouldn’t be funded by the county. Republican supervisors Jim Desmond and Joel Anderson, who both voted against the program, echoed these sentiments.

“I really wish we had unlimited funds for everyone’s representation in civil matters,” Desmond said. “To me, this is a federal issue and unfortunately not the financial responsibility of a local county government.”

Legal advocates have called on the Biden Administration to guarantee the right to counsel for immigration cases, but Democratic Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, who brought this proposal to the Board, says the county doesn’t need to wait for the federal government when it can act now.

County staff will deliver a plan to the Supervisors for making this program permanent within the next 90 days.

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