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San Diego County ushers in first legal aid program of its kind to help detained migrants

A year and a day after San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer introduced the Immigrants Rights Legal Defense Program, she stood in front of the county building to announce that the initiative was officially up and running.

"San Diego County is now the first border region in the United States to provide free, free legal representation for immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers facing removal proceedings," Lawson-Remer said. "We are declaring with one voice that our justice system must be based on facts and law, not access to wealth and resources."

The program will be run out of the county's Public Defender Office and be funded by the county to the tune of $5 million dollars.


For help or questions, call:

ABA Immigration Justice Project 619-736-3315
Southern California Immigration Project 619-516-8119
Jewish Family Services 858-637-3365

Michael Garcia, a chief deputy at the Public Defender Office, said the data showed that the odds are against people who have to navigate a complex legal system that will decide their fate. "The success rate of gaining any relief whatsoever during their case is a mere four percent. By contrast, when represented by counsel that success rate climbs to over 40%. As you can see these numbers are telling. An attorney in an immigration court means absolutely everything."

Lawson-Remer and Garcia said the program would help the backlog of people waiting in detention centers in the county. But emphasized the provide legal aid to those who do not qualify for legal status.

"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 the county of San Diego," Garcia said.

"Let’s be very clear — you know there are federal immigration laws in this country, and, if you have a violent criminal history, you are not going to be eligible to stay in this country, period. That is the law," Lawson-Remer said.

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Norma Chavez-Peterson is the executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. She said most of us know someone caught up in this legal dilemma. "These are people that are in our midst. They might help clean our homes, they might serve us at the restaurant, they might be the parent of my daughter’s best friend," she said. "So these are everyday people, hard working immigrants that are part of our community who might be in a situation because of our failed immigration policy."

Lawson-Remer said she hoped that this program would provide the help extended to her family during a dark time. "I’m also the descendant of three great grandparents who fled to the United States to escape torture and mass killings of Jews in Europe," she said. "My great grandfather Max escaped persecution in Ukraine much like we are seeing tragically today. One hundred years later our country is still a beacon of hope for people fleeing persecution."

And hope, Chavez-Peterson said, is what this program provides to many who have lost it in detention centers that look and feel like jails. "You are separated from your loved ones. You are in despair. So the idea that you see the flier that says we can help, you can call us and we can represent you for free and fight your case and make sure you have a fair day in court, I can only imagine el alivio, right, the relief, the esperanza, the hope that this gives an individual," she said.

Only detained immigrants or people in alternative to detention status qualify, with the ultimate goal of growing the program to help anyone who needs legal immigration aid. The three agencies that will assist with the program include ABA Immigration Justice Project, Southern California Immigration Project and Jewish Family Service.