This week, the city of San Francisco began providing a team of public defenders to immigrants who are unable to afford an attorney to help fight federal deportation attempts in court. One-third of the population of the City-by-the Bay is made up of immigrants, making the free legal counsel essential, according to local supporters. According to the Department of Justice, in nearly 40 percent of deportation cases, immigrants have only themselves for counsel. Having an attorney makes success in court several times more likely for immigrants. However, more than 73,000 immigrants in San Francisco went to court without a lawyer in 2016, according to the San Francisco Public Defender’s office.
Many of the immigrants appearing before immigration judges are illiterate in their native language and have difficulty complying with court orders to complete government forms and to obtain legal representation. Nonprofit community organizations and churches have long provided free and reduced-rate assistance with translation and legal counsel.
San Francisco is joining New York City and Alameda County (Calif.) in providing immigration units in public defenders’ offices. Last December, Los Angeles announced a $10-million fund for local immigrants facing deportation, while Chicago put together $1.3 million for a defense fund at about the same time. In Texas, the city of Austin provided emergency funds in February.
The Trump administration has had progressively more success in arresting illegal immigrants: arrests are up by 38 percent this year. President Trump is seeking $2.7 billion in additional funding for border security and immigration enforcement. In addition, the Department of Justice has announced plans to cut funding to so-called “sanctuary” cities that do not cooperate with requests from immigration officials to detain wanted immigrants.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee authorized spending $200,000 on three lawyers and a paralegal assistant for the balance of 2017, according to the Huffington Post. The city’s public defenders are facing a tall order: approximately 1,500 detained immigrants have court dates in San Francisco each year.
There are critics of the expenditure of public funds. For example, Republican Sue Caro told The Mercury News recently, “I don’t believe there is an appetite among the citizens in California to use their taxpayer dollars to defend undocumented immigrants who may have committed crimes.”
San Francisco has approximately 44,000 illegal immigrants, including 11,000 from Mexico, 10,000 from China, and 2,000 from the Philippines, according to city figures. About half of detained immigrants have been in the country for more than 10 years, while more than 50 percent have one or more close family members who are citizens.
“Mass deportation is against our core values as Americans and San Franciscans,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said, according to the agency’s website. “Due process still means something in this country and we are not going to let the federal government ship off our friends and neighbors without a fight.” Francisco Ugarte, the managing attorney of the new Immigration Unit, explained that unlike criminal courts, non-citizens in immigration detention do not have the right to court-appointed counsel. “These are longtime residents who work, attend school, and contribute to our city,” Ugarte said. “Without this program, most would be forced to defend themselves in court against trained government lawyers.”