Otay Mesa Detention Center
The Otay Mesa Immigration Court. Photo via corecivic.com.

A program providing legal representation for immigrants facing removal proceedings was approved Tuesday by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors by a 3-2 vote.

Meeting virtually, the board voted after a nearly two-hour public hearing, with many calling in to support Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer’s proposal.

San Diego is the nation’s first southern border county with a program to provide such legal aid for immigrants facing removal, according to Lawson-Remer’s office.

The program will start as a $5 million one-year pilot project, and eventually grow to be a permanent program as part of the San Diego County Office of the Public Defender and work in partnership with regional immigrant defense agencies and nonprofit organizations.

County staff will report back to the board in 90 days with a plan to permanently fund and operate the program.

Lawson-Remer said the program will help address the current backlog in immigration courts.

Lawson-Remer said this issue was personal to her, because three of her grandparents fled Europe because they feared for their lives. Establishing a legal defense program “will strengthen our values as Americans,” she said.

Supervisors Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond cast the dissenting votes.

Desmond said he appreciated hearing from the many passionate supporters and wished the county had more money to help those in need.

However, “this is a federal matter, and we should be communicating with them for more support,” Desmond said. “I won’t be supporting the item.”

Anderson gave no formal reason for voting no.

Lawson-Remer’s proposal has received support from the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, Jewish Family Services of San Diego and the Invest in San Diego Families Coalition.

During the public call-in period, the board heard from over 100 people, most in favor of the proposal.

Liz Kenney, associate program director for the SAFE Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice, said offering legal help means keeping families together if an immigrant can win his or her case, or at least be released on bond.

Kenney added that more cities are funding deportation defense programs.

One woman, who didn’t give her full name, said California is already a “sanctuary state” that spends billions on immigrants in the country without legal permission.

The woman said the board should instead focus its efforts on legal residents and their needs.