San Diego County program providing lawyers to immigrants draws ire and praise


San Diego County provided attorneys to nearly 800 immigrants facing deportation in the first 15 months of a new program, leading to an increase in legal representation for immigrants in the region and a growing number of courtroom wins, according to a report.

In response to the report, released last month, county Supervisors Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond renewed their concerns about spending county funds on immigration cases. They also criticized the legal defense program because in a small number of cases it provided attorneys to immigrants facing criminal-related grounds for deportation under immigration law.

On Tuesday, at Anderson’s request, the Board of Supervisors will consider whether to ask the county to exclude from the program immigrants convicted of crimes that bar them from becoming U.S. citizens.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer defended the program. She said immigrants are entitled to a “fair day in court.”

The program, which Lawson-Remer proposed, launched in April 2022 and provides attorneys at no cost to people taken into immigration custody. The program does not consider the merits or chances of a successful defense.

County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer speaks at a press conference

County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer speaks at a press conference in April 2022 celebrating the launch of the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program, which she asked the Board of Supervisors to fund last year.

(Kate Morrissey/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Unlike defendants in the criminal legal system, immigrants facing deportation are not guaranteed an appointed attorney. Most — especially those in custody — go unrepresented, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a national research and policy nonprofit.

San Diego is the only county along the U.S.-Mexico border to offer legal representation to people for their immigration cases.

The findings

The report on the county program reviewed its first 15 months, from April 2022 to June 2023. The report was produced by the San Diego County Public Defender Office of Assigned Counsel and Public Safety Group.

The report found that during that period, 42 percent of people in immigration custody in San Diego County overall had an attorney, up from 25 percent in the same period between 2021 and 2022. Fliers about the program are available at the Otay Mesa Detention Facility, and judges share information about the program. Nonprofits also promote the program.

“While the increase in representation cannot be solely attributed to (the legal defense program), the program is likely partially responsible,” the report states.

The program costs added up to $1.7 million. However, with many cases still open, full costs will be determined as more cases are closed, the report says. The estimated annual cost is $4.4 million to $5 million.

The program, the report says, handled an intake of 868 cases and assisted 782 clients.

Most clients identified as Latino (56 percent) or Black (28 percent). Most came from Colombia (14 percent) or Mexico (13 percent). Most were male (75 percent) and ages 22 to 39 (59 percent). Most were single (70 percent) and had no dependents (60 percent).

Deportation proceedings stem from various violations of immigration law, which is civil matter rather than criminal. The vast majority of clients allegedly entered the U.S. without permission or valid documents.

Thirty-four immigrants, or 5 percent, faced deportation due to an alleged or proven criminal act. The report did not provide details about the criminal-related grounds for deportation they faced.

About 470 clients were released from custody pending the outcome of their cases. Details were available in 425 cases. In those cases, the average time spent in custody was 72 days.

There was a “substantive” outcome in 220 cases, including 77 in which a judge issued a deportation order and 58 cases in which clients were granted relief from deportation.

That puts the success rate thus far at 35 percent. That is comparable to data the county shared when the program began that showed the success rate for immigrants with attorneys at more than 40 percent, as opposed to a 4 percent success rate for those who represent themselves.

The Otay Mesa Detention Center is where immigrants who are held in custody in San Diego County.

The Otay Mesa Detention Center is where immigrants who are held in custody in San Diego County.


About 40 percent of cases remained open. About 32 percent were closed without a “substantive” outcome, mostly because the cases were moved to courts in other jurisdictions.

The program faces several challenges, the report says. Among them is the “long, slow nature” of immigration court, with infrequent hearings, which makes it difficult to make cost projections and decide the “correct” caseload for attorneys.

The slow nature of immigration court allowed attorneys to manage the caseload, although there could be a cap on monthly intakes in the future if the program’s 35 attorneys get too busy and the program struggles to bring on additional attorneys.

Another challenge is the limited number of qualified attorneys in the region, according to the report. In response, the program is partnering with the University of San Diego School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, bringing on adjunct professors and students to supplement the work. “This collaboration is also designed to promote the field of immigration law locally and alleviate the shortage of fully qualified immigration practitioners,” the report states.

Controversy over eligibility

In response to the report, Anderson and Desmond, who voted against the program, criticized it and, in particular, took issue with the legal representation for clients who faced criminal-related grounds for deportation.

County Supervisor Joel Anderson

County Supervisor Joel Anderson

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

While the report did not provide details about the grounds, the county provided Anderson with a breakdown, his office said. The breakdown showed eight cases involved drug trafficking. Other cases involved vague criminal-related grounds, including “aggravated felonies” in 13 cases and “crimes involving moral turpitude” in six cases.

“This program grants special treatment to individuals who have chosen to bypass our immigration laws, including some of the most egregious offenders,” Desmond said in a statement. He added that the county does not offer legal representation to U.S. citizens in other kinds of complex civil cases, such as matters in U.S. Tax Court.

Desmond and Anderson said the county should not spend money on immigration cases — which they characterized as a federal issue outside of the county’s responsibility. They said the funds should be used on pressing local issues, such as homelessness and mental health.

“We have enough of our own problems to deal with,” Desmond said in an interview.

In a proposal docketed for Tuesday’s meeting, Anderson is set to ask the county to research the crimes that disqualify immigrants from U.S. citizenship and exclude from the program immigrants convicted of those crimes.

County Supervisor Jim Desmond

County Supervisor Jim Desmond

(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“Without a framework for eligibility, our limited public dollars will continue to go to people federally ineligible to become citizens,” the agenda item states.

Legal experts say two types of crimes disqualify immigrants from U.S. citizenship: murder and “aggravated felonies,” an ambiguous category that includes rape, drug trafficking and certain types of fraud.

Lawson-Remer said in an interview that the county has a moral obligation to uphold immigrants’ rights to due process.

“I’m pretty troubled by any suggestion that people who come from other countries don’t deserve to have their rights protected,” she said.

Sometimes immigrants are deported unjustly simply because they had no legal representation and instead had to defend themselves in court, she said.

It’s up to a judge to decide if immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S., she said, noting that some criminal convictions result in deportation. The program allows the process to play out, ideally in a more timely manner if immigrants have attorneys, she said.

Sometimes legal representation helps immigrants walk out of custody. If immigrants stay in custody, costs to keep them detained pile up, and they are unable to contribute to society, she said.

The goal of the program, she said, is to provide legal representation in all eligible cases. She said the program is on the right track.

“I think it’s an extraordinary success” so far, she said.

Norma Chávez-Peterson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, applauded the program.

“By creating access to counsel, this program provides immigrants in our region a fair chance at rejoining their families, winning their freedom and seeking relief from deportation,” she said. “San Diego County is a better and stronger region when we treat everyone fairly and with dignity.”

Winning cases

The report highlighted the stories of 15 clients.

Among them was a man who was a legal permanent resident since 1990 and worked in construction until he lost his job at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Desperate for work, he answered a Facebook ad for a gig. Monday to Friday, he drove a car from Tijuana to San Diego. One day, Customs and Border Protection officers found drugs hidden in the compartments. The man didn’t know drugs were in the car, according to the report.

At first he lied about the job because he was afraid, but then he gave up information about his boss, the report said. He later pleaded guilty to making a false statement.

Deportation proceedings followed, but an attorney stepped in and showed the court the man’s history as an employed taxpayer. The attorney also cited the client’s poor health.

Ultimately, a judge allowed the man to keep his green card.

In another case, a woman from Venezuela came to the U.S. after she was persecuted for participating in political rallies against her government. The woman, who is lesbian, was jailed. A judge in Venezuela later called her a homophobic slur and sentenced her to community service. The guards in charge of signing proof of her community service suggested she have sex with them and later demanded $500 a month to sign her slip, according to the report.

Frustrated by the “no-win situation,” the report says, she fled to Peru, but she was denied legal status because of a warrant for failing to complete her community service.

In the U.S., she worked as a housekeeper. Unable to make ends meet, she gave a car ride to two undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to the report. She later was convicted of human smuggling.

An immigration judge allowed her to stay in the U.S.

Another client was a Colombian man who was beaten by the military in his country over his involvement in anti-corruption political protests. After he left Colombia, his father was threatened and beaten by military personnel who were looking for his son.

A judge also allowed him to stay.


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