In May, San Diego added another notch to its America’s Finest City belt. We became the first border county in the nation to establish a pilot program that provides free legal representation to immigrants facing deportation at the Otay Mesa Detention Center.
Immigration is one of our four public policy focus areas at Business For Good, so we consider this a huge win for our organization too. New Americans drive economic prosperity, and BFG supports policies that help San Diego create an inclusive economy where everyone can thrive.
On World Refugee Day this year, we’re taking a deeper look at our county’s new Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program and how it can benefit our local economy and the San Diego region as a whole.
About the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program
The County Board of Supervisors approved the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program on May 4, 2021. It is a one-year, $5-million pilot program that provides free legal counsel for deportation cases. The program will be run through the Public Defender’s Office, which will team up with local non-profits and immigrant defense organizations already providing services to detained clients.
One reason this program is necessary is that it can help adjust the skewed narrative around immigration and deportation. There is a pervasive belief that when a person is denied entry to the U.S., the action is justified due to a criminal background, fraud, or another nefarious circumstance.
But the reality is that many immigrants are deported simply because they can’t afford an attorney.
Since immigration is considered a civil legal matter rather than a criminal one, those facing deportations are not provided government-appointed attorneys if they can’t afford one. And less than 17% of people detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center and facing deportation have access to legal counsel.
The county’s new program can help close that frightening gap and make legal defense more widely accessible. Immigrants and refugees who are legally eligible to stay in the U.S. must have the opportunity to make their case in court.
“This program is absolutely crucial to giving immigrants and refugees the dignity and hope they deserve through legal representation,” said Juan Pablo Sanchez, BFG Board Member and Immigration Committee Chair. “So often, immigrants are unfairly deprived of their civil liberties during the detention process. By providing the legal representation they aren’t able to access on their own, we allow for due process and a fair hearing to occur.”
The legal world can be extremely complicated, not to mention adversarial. Without legal representation, a person’s chances of mounting any successful court case are almost nothing.
“Detainees who have lawyers are four times more likely to be released from detention,” Juan Pablo said. “That is a strong indicator that many deportations are due to lack of legal representation, not because the person deserved to go.”
A cultural necessity in San Diego
San Diego has long enjoyed a global reputation as a relaxed, chill beach town. And while that is still true to some degree, it’s time we proudly champion another chunk of our identity: home to the busiest port of entry in the Western Hemisphere.
Immigration is a fundamental part of San Diego—and that diversity has brought incredible prosperity to our region. In 2016, foreign-born residents in San Diego contributed $54.3B to the county’s GDP, or 25.2% of overall GDP.
This substantial contribution, compounded with the fact that nearly 1 in 4 of our residents are immigrants, demonstrates how the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program is a cultural necessity in San Diego County. We’re showcasing to the world one of our core values: that immigrants give more than they take, and all eligible citizens are welcome here.
With the addition of this program, San Diego will also be well equipped to effectively process a larger volume of immigrant court cases as the global population continues to grow.
“We are the largest border city in the United States, sitting on the busiest land border in the entire world,” Juan Pablo said. “Immigration and refugee crises will, time and again, explode at our doorstep. We must have policies in place to fairly and humanely deal with present and future cases.”
Finally, we need to face the grave moral and ethical implications of unnecessary deportation for members of this vulnerable population.
“The harsh reality is that sometimes individuals and families seeking asylum will be killed if they return to their countries of origin,” Juan Pablo said. “To know that we could have possibly prevented that horrible scenario just by helping to provide proper legal representation is devastating.”
The program can help inform progressive immigration policy in San Diego
Most U.S immigration policy falls under federal jurisdiction. But there is still progress that can be made at a state or local level.
For instance, at least 43 localities around the country have already implemented programs similar to San Diego’s new Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program. This shows that cities throughout the U.S. can lead the way for progressive, constructive immigration policy. San Diego is now joining those ranks.
“I feel like San Diego lags behind other cities when it comes to implementing local immigration policy,” Juan Pablo said. “But this program drastically changes that perception. San Diego is now the first border county in the U.S. to provide deportation defense. To enact anything of this kind marks a stark change from past immigration practices, and positions us as leaders in the quest for immigration reform nationwide.”
Business For Good’s Immigration committee is teaming up with other local organizations to use this jumping-off point to begin a comprehensive push for more immigrant policies—the first of which is helping to establish a San Diego County Office of Immigrant Affairs. Overall, BFG is pushing to increase funding for progressive immigration programs that will, in turn, benefit all San Diegans at both the local and federal levels.
“Since immigration is largely a federal issue, it may not necessarily be San Diego’s responsibility to solely fund programs like the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program long-term,” Juan Pablo said. “But in the absence of any federal aid, it is important that our city steps up.”
Juan Pablo pointed out that if San Diego’s new program excels, however, that presents a very strong argument for introducing a federal U.S. Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program.
“Even if the federal government does enact something similar to our program, I think San Diego should continue its own fund that could supplement our region if federal aid was ever removed or decreased,” he added. “The obvious benefit of implementing this program locally is the autonomy to use the aid in the ways we believe will work best for San Diego County.”
It helps grow our local economy and gives more opportunity to all
New Americans add tremendous economic value to any region they inhabit. With this shared understanding, we can support policies like the Immigrant Rights Legal Defense Program that will help our local economy continue to grow.
Here are just a few ways immigrants and their businesses have contributed to San Diego’s economic growth:
- Despite making up 24.1% of the overall population, immigrants represented 32.7% of the entrepreneurs in San Diego in 2016. This makes the foreign-born 22.7% more likely than the U.S.-born to be entrepreneurs
- Immigrant entrepreneurs generated $1.4B in business income for San Diego County in 2016
- With a median income of $53,700, San Diego immigrants contributed significantly to state and local taxes, including property, sales, and excise taxes levied by state or municipal governments
- Because of the role immigrants play in the workforce helping companies keep jobs local, it’s estimated that by 2016, immigrants living in the county had helped create or preserve 36,770 local manufacturing jobs that would have otherwise vanished or moved elsewhere
Beyond the economic angle, the county’s new program helps enhance San Diego’s image as a welcoming space where opportunity and access are readily available to all who seek it. The peace of mind that this gives to new Americans is also integral to our region’s prosperity and growth:
- The fear of deportation is instilled in certain neighborhoods and is very disruptive to both business and way of life. “Although it is hard to quantify, the threat of deportation—and being denied entry to the U.S. when legally eligible—is highly disruptive to our entire economy, community, and the mental health of those going through such procedures,” Juan Pablo said. “A city that protects its citizens, especially their most vulnerable populations, reaps the benefits of an inclusive, safe, and more productive community.”
- Policies like this also make our region more welcoming to immigrants. “We are sending the message loud and clear that we realize harnessing the contribution of immigrants is historically what makes the most prosperous cities thrive,” Juan Pablo said. “It is no coincidence that the Roman Empire prevailed as long as it did in part due to its inclusion of immigrants and their ideas throughout the centuries.”
- Our local Welcoming San Diego office is active and growing. Established in 2019, our Welcoming San Diego is an initiative of the City of San Diego designed to advance the civic, social, and economic integration of immigrants and refugees. Even during the financially tenuous COVID-19 crisis, Welcome San Diego still hired a full-time staff person who maintained their employment throughout the pandemic. Welcoming San Diego has an active social media presence with links to many valuable resources for new Americans.