BY WENDY FRY, CalMatters
The state already pays some legal bills in immigration court – but not for those with serious or violent felony records. If they can’t afford a lawyer, they face deportation alone. Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer says that’s not due process.
In California, when the federal government tries to deport someone the funds for that person’s legal defense may come from an unlikely source: the state budget.
Each year the state sets aside about $45 million for grants to nonprofits that provide defense and other legal services to low-income immigrants and their families. So far, the program called One California has paid for legal representation for more than 1,000 Californians facing detention, deportation or family separation, state officials say.
The money also provides outreach, education services and “affirmative immigration relief,” which is when an immigrant applies for asylum directly to immigration authorities while not involved in deportation proceedings.
Not everyone can access these legal reserves. Immigrants who have been convicted of serious or violent felonies are excluded from accessing state funds for legal representation during removal proceedings.
Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles, wants to remove that barrier to legal support. In February he introduced a bill that would expand the One California program by excising its exclusions for immigrants convicted of serious or violent felonies.
Serious and violent felonies cover a wide variety of crimes, ranging from robbery to murder.
Jones-Sawyer views this as a civil rights issue, saying immigrants should have the same rights to representation and due process as everyone else.
“The Rep for All Immigrants Act ensures racial justice and true equitable access to crucial immigration services for all – not some,” he said.
In 2016 then-state Sen. Ben Hueso, a Democrat from San Diego, introduced a similar bill, called the Due Process for All Act. It was part of a legislative package answering President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant threats to deport millions of people.
Hueso’s bill did not pass the Assembly, but it became part of a budget trailer bill. Since 2017, it has been part of the One California program.
The legal assistance is one of the ways the California Legislature has attempted to stand against anti-immigration policies. Other measures have expanded eligibility for state-run health insurance and the state’s earned-income tax credit to more undocumented immigrants.
In many states, immigrants facing deportation are generally not provided free legal counsel in federal immigration courts, not even children.
Opponents of Jones-Sawyer’s bill question using funds for this purpose while California faces a $22.5 billion budget deficit, though it’s unknown how much expanding the services would cost.
Advocates say putting up barriers to legal services for individuals convicted of serious crimes creates a two-tiered system of justice, where only certain people get due process.
“This bill will ensure immigrant Californians can access high-quality, comprehensive services, relief and protections, allowing them to continue their lives with dignity and fairness,” said Shiu-Ming Cheer, deputy director of programs at the California Immigrant Policy Center, a co-sponsor of the law.
The bill would pay for legal representation, investigative services, interpreters and translations, expert witness services, and supportive and rehabilitative services to people facing removal from the United States.
Legal representation is among the most important factors determining whether an immigrant in federal removal proceedings gets to stay in the country or not. Yet the majority of people facing deportation do not have legal representation, data shows.
In fiscal year 2022, 58.3% of Californians facing deportation — 50,982 people — did not have legal representation, according to TRAC, a nonpartisan immigration database. That same year, 76.7% of people who lost a removal case in California and were ordered deported lacked legal representation.
By contrast, national statistics show that lawyers represented 94% of the people who won their cases in immigration courts. A comparable statistic was not available for California.
Assemblymember Bill Essayli, a Republican from Riverside, said the people Jones-Sawyer’s bill is likely to help already had due process of law in criminal court.
“Every person has a right to a defense in a criminal case,” he said.
“The people we’re talking about in this bill have already been convicted of a serious felony, after being afforded their government-paid defense. I see no legal or rational basis for why the California taxpayer should then be financially responsible for defending the deportation proceeding of a convicted felon.”
Essayli added that the state doesn’t have funds for its other priorities.
“We are facing a budget deficit, and tax dollars must be prioritized for hardworking Californians struggling to make rent, buy groceries, and pay the electric bill. This bill does not do that,” he said.
One California falls under the purview of the state Department of Social Services. That agency vets nonprofit organizations that apply and awards them contracts to provide attorneys for immigrants. The nonprofits must have experience representing immigrants in asylum, juvenile status, human trafficking and other criminal cases.
Some grants already are allocated for legal services for unaccompanied immigrant children who are transferred to the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in California.
Jones-Sawyer’s proposed bill also would expand how much cost information is available about One California. The Department of Social Services would provide the Legislature with an annual report and publish it on the department’s website.
The bill was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, which began meeting March 12.
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