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

San Diego County is now offering free legal services to immigration detainees facing deportation, officials announced Thursday, making the county the first along the U.S.-Mexico Border to do so. The program so far has about a dozen clients, officials said. 

The pilot Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program provides attorneys for individuals detained by immigration authorities, either in detention centers such as the Otay Mesa Detention Center or in alternative detention programs, such as GPS monitoring. 

“This is going to change lives,” said Terra Lawson-Remer, District 3 county supervisor who proposed the program,  during a press conference Thursday. 

Why this matters

In the past two decades, only about 12% of detained immigrants who faced deportation in San Diego courts were represented by an attorney. Advocates say no-cost legal services would make a complicated legal system more fair.

The county has budgeted $5 million in the program’s first year to pay for services provided by three legal nonprofits: the Southern California Immigrant Project, Jewish Family Service of San Diego, and the American Bar Association’s Immigrant Justice Project. The money also includes $500,000 for translation services. 

There are currently more than 8,000 deportation cases pending in San Diego County. More than 40% of those cases are not represented by an attorney, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University

Historically, representation has been much lower. Since 2002, only about 12% of detained immigrants who faced deportation in San Diego courts were represented by an attorney, TRAC data show. 

Lawson-Remer said the goal is to serve about 1,000 clients with the current budget, but that number could increase. If the funds run out, Lawson-Remer said the board of supervisors is committed to approving additional funds for the program to serve more people. 

“There’s a commitment from our board to fully fund the program and so we didn’t want to  put a cap on them because we really want to be able to serve everyone,” Lawson-Remer said. 

In addition to the nonprofit service providers, the program is accepting applications from attorneys to serve on a panel to increase capacity of the program, said Michael Garcia, chief deputy of the county’s Office of Assigned Counsel, which is helping to manage the program through the Public Defender Office.

Immigration advocates initially pushed back against the “detained” eligibility requirement for the program, fearing the growing number of individuals in alternative detention programs would be left out, inewsource previously reported. But the board of supervisors chose to “broadly” define detained to include those programs, Garcia said. 

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Those advocates promoted the universal representation model – where anyone facing deportation proceedings in the county would receive an attorney from the government. 

Under the new program, however, people facing deportation who are not in some form of detention, including alternatives to incarceration, would not be eligible for the free legal services. 

Lawson-Remer said she hopes to scale up the program to achieve universal representation in the future.

“We want to get there, but we also didn’t want to fail in the first year,” Lawson-Remer said. “The hope is that, you know, within the next 18 months or so, we’ll be able to scale up to a universal program, but I don’t want to make promises that we can’t deliver on.” 

The program will rely on the nonprofits offering services to spread the word in the community, Lawson-Remer said. Program flyers with phone numbers for each of the nonprofits will also be distributed at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, a private detention center where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement houses detainees. 

The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties is serving as part of the program’s advisory group and plans to “ensure that the immigrant legal defense program is successful and becomes a permanent fixture here in San Diego County,” said Norma Chávez-Peterson, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“The immigrant legal defense program makes our nation’s immigration system just a little bit more just and more humane,” Chávez-Peterson said. “We have a long way to go.” 

How to get help

Who’s eligible:

San Diego County’s Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program is limited to individuals in deportation proceedings who are currently in custody at an immigration detention center or in alternative detention programs such as GPS monitoring through ankle bracelets, telephonic reporting and SmartLINK smartphone facial recognition. 

What you need:

Individuals interested in the program’s services should have the following information available: 

  • Name
  • Date of birth 
  • Detention A#
  • Expected immigrant defense issue (i.e. asylum, criminal conviction removal, suspension of deportation, etc.)

Who to call: 

ABA Immigration Justice Project 

619-736-3315 // Hours of operation: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Southern California Immigration Project 

619-516-8119 // Hours of operation: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Jewish Family Service of San Diego

858-637-3365 // Voicemails returned in order received. 

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...