While a number of U.S. cities have created legal funds to assist immigrants, “San Diego would be the first southern border county in the United States to provide legal representation for those in federal immigration custody who are facing removal proceedings,” the Associated Press reported last year. Under the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program, the San Diego County Public Defender Office is working with the American Bar Association Immigration Justice Project, Jewish Family Service, and the Southern California Immigration Project to provide legal services.
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The pilot program stands to have its greatest impact at the CoreCivic-operated Otay Mesa Detention Facility, where advocates say immigrants have faced prolonged detentions in harmful conditions for as long as a year. The private prison is where the first immigrant to die of COVID-19 was held. Since then, it’s failed numerous unannounced inspections. Meanwhile, other detained people have faced extraordinarily high bonds, up to $50,000, that make their release impossible.
“If one of the program’s clients is released from detention, that person will remain a client for the duration of the case unless they move away from San Diego,” The San Diego Union-Tribune reported. “The program does not disqualify potential clients based on criminal history.” Roughly a dozen people are being represented at the moment, the report said.
That immigrants will be able to continue to access legal help should they stay in the area will be hugely impactful. When immigrants have a legal representative in their corner, they’re more likely to be released from detention and be able to stay in the U.S. American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties Executive Director Norma Chávez-Peterson told The San Diego Union-Tribune that the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program “makes our nation’s immigration system just a little bit more just and more humane,” though “we still have a long way to go.”
The Biden administration last fall announced policy to provide legal help to vulnerable asylum-seeking children in a number of U.S. cities. Unaccompanied children have had to appear in immigration court alone, a horrific feature of our immigration system that has been going on for years but gained greater attention during the previous administration’s family separation crisis. Legal service providers have worked to represent some asylum-seeking kids in U.S. custody, but it’s nowhere close to the universal representation that’s needed.
“We applaud the Biden admin for its new initiative, Counsel for Children,” tweeted Kids In Need of Defense following the president’s policy announcement. “It is the right step in providing fairness and assistance to unaccompanied children, so they aren't forced to navigate our complex immigration system alone.”