San Diego County implements free legal defense program for illegal immigrants facing deportation

The one-year pilot program will cost taxpayers $5 million

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San Diego’s board of supervisors approved a plan Tuesday to provide cost-free attorneys to illegal immigrants facing deportation – even as state and federal officials are scaling down COVID-19 testing on migrants.

The county’s public defender’s office and legal nonprofits will be tasked with representing detainees at the federal Otay Mesa Detention Center, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

The one-year pilot program will cost taxpayers $5 million and is reportedly the first of its kind implemented in a county that sits on the U.S.-Mexico border.

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The five-member panel approved the move in a 3-2 vote along ideological lines.

In this March 2, 2019, file photo, a Customs and Border Control agent patrols on the U.S. side of a razor-wire-covered border wall.  (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

In this March 2, 2019, file photo, a Customs and Border Control agent patrols on the U.S. side of a razor-wire-covered border wall.  (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

"This is a federal issue, not the responsibility of San Diego County," said Supervisor Jim Desmond, one of the two votes against the measure. 

He argued that it amounts to special treatment for people in the country illegally.

"We don't provide legal representation to American citizens when it comes to complex issues like the U.S. Tax Court, Medicare hearings, and Social Security hearings," he noted. "This is $5 million that could be better spent addressing homelessness or behavioral health, or other local issues."

Other critics have also pushed back against the idea as "radical" and out of touch with what constituents want.

"This is also the same day we've been told the state and federal government is refusing to test those coming into our region for COVID-19," Miles Himmel, of the Larry Himmel Foundation, told Fox News Wednesday. "As you can imagine this appalling to us and many San Diegans, but continues to show San Diego becomes more radical."

Supporters of the bill characterized it as a way to ensure "fairness" and "due process" for people facing deportation after entering the country without permission.

"This is an example of how we can restore fairness and justice for all in our justice system, and ultimately keep families together," the National Immigration Law Center said in a tweet responding to the news. "NILC supports this measure — and other universal representation programs across the country — because having an attorney can mean the difference between staying with loved ones & being torn from the life that has been built in this country."

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The move comes as the county’s largest public school district is facing a federal civil rights complaint over its embrace of the controversial "critical race theory" curriculum, with a group of California nonprofits allege is "racist" and encourages discrimination.

"[The district] blatantly propagates racist ideas and theories, subjugating its teachers to disparate treatment based on race," Frank Xu, the president of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation, said at the time.  "Such racially motivated political indoctrination stokes racial tensions and will ultimately weaken our national competitiveness. We are genuinely concerned about the future of this great nation if it continues on this path of racial divisions."