San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer says plan would save taxpayer dollars, deal with court backlog. Photo by Chris Stone

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.

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.”

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.

“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.

Legal fees can be costly and often burdensome on families, Lawson- Remer said. Officials say only 5% of individuals facing deportation won their case without a lawyer, while those with legal representation are more than 10 times more likely to be successful.

“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.”

Difficulties accessing legal counsel contributes to backlogs in immigration courts, where more than a 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.

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 program is scheduled for May 4. If the pilot program is approved, staff will report back in 90 days with a plan to permanently fund and operate the program.

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