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Report Reveals Immigrants in Orange County Are at Risk for Deportation

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The Orange County Justice Fund (OCJF) revealed the lack of necessary legal resources and funding for immigrants for legal proceedings within Orange County in a report published on May 25.

The OCJF is a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance for local immigrants against deportation. Their study, a 50-page report titled “The State of Immigration Enforcement and Legal Resources In Orange County,” found that immigrants facing legal proceedings do not have the sufficient legal resources to help them advocate for their case in immigration court.

Immigration proceedings are considered civil matters, not criminal ones, meaning that individuals do not have the same constitutional protections as criminal defendants. They also do not have the right to government-appointed counsel. The report shows that Orange County residents without sufficient financial resources to afford private attorney representation are left with limited options, such as pro bono providers, law school clinics or self-representation.

The report also revealed that Orange County has only two legal services providers that services low-income and local immigrants: one state-funded and one funded by the city of Santa Ana.

Santa Ana was identified as a leader in immigration services in the county. It was the first city to establish a legal fund for immigrant families in 2017, and also declared itself to be a sanctuary city in 2020 by unanimous vote. These steps were also seen as steps towards ending the city’s relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the OCJF.

Although Santa Ana has sanctuary city status, Orange County Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento said in a statement to ABC 7, explaining challenges faced by low income immigrants when advocating for their case in court.

“As a lawyer, I know that when a person goes to court without counsel, without legal representation, they have a very, very limited chance of being successful, even though they may have a compelling argument,” Sarmiento stated.

In November 2021, the Department of Justice opened an immigration court in Santa Ana. The court was established in order to address the 2.1 million immigration cases identified by the OCJF which are currently pending for a result from an immigration judge. According to the OCJF report, as of February 2023, there were approximately 23,000 pending deportation cases at the Santa Ana Immigration Court, including over 17,000 cases for OC residents. In addition, over 2,400 individuals were deported on a decision from the court.

The OCFJ report identified federal funding towards legal representation as a possible solution to the lack of legal support for immigrants and those facing deportation. However, only “certain limited circumstances” may receive this funding, as reported by the OC Register.

Although federal funding can address immediate concerns about legal representation, it would not address underlying systemic issues and could even assist in potentially enforcing harmful policies, according to the OCJF report. 

“Some advocates believe that the federal funding model will ultimately fall short of confronting mass deportations and, in some ways, may serve to enforce it,” the report stated.

In addition, the state of California has historically provided substantially less resources to those facing deportation, especially compared to those seeking asylum. The report states that in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the California Department of Social Services provided $1.6 million to eight nonprofit agencies that deal with services aimed at asylum seekers. $322,500 was provided for deportation defense services only at the Public Law Center in Santa Ana.

Recommendations proposed by the OCJF include greater funding for legal immigration service providers and also an emphasis on non-legal support for those facing deportation. Cooperation between local legal services for immigration rights and grassroots organizations can help to better address the needs of local communities. 

In addition, concrete support and protection from elected officials in Orange County will be crucial for immigrant communities. 

“Immigrants and refugees contribute to the cultural, economic, and social fabric of society,” the report stated. “By protecting, supporting, and empowering immigrants and refugees facing deportation, elected officials in Orange County can work towards creating a more just and inclusive society.”

Frank Granda is a City News Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. He can be reached at grandaf@uci.edu.