Nearly 42% of Orange County’s 11,624 undocumented immigrants currently fighting deportation have no legal representation, forcing them to navigate complex and often unfamiliar court proceedings alone and increasing the likelihood they will be removed from the U.S., according to a study released Thursday, May 25.
Because immigration proceedings are civil rather than criminal matters, individuals do not have the same constitutional protections as criminal defendants, most notably the right to government-appointed counsel, said the 50-page report from the Orange County Justice Fund, a nonprofit that offers immigration bond assistance.
“Because there is no guaranteed right to counsel in deportation proceedings, Orange County residents who lack financial resources to pay for private attorney representation are faced with few options to prevent deportation,” the report says. “These include, pro bono legal service providers, private attorneys, law school clinics, or proceeding on their own without legal representation.”
Unlike some neighboring counties, such as San Diego, which has established a $5 million legal defense program, Orange County has not contributed any money toward legal services to help residents defend themselves against deportation, according to the report.
Furthermore, Orange County has just two legal service providers — one funded by the state and another by the city of Santa Ana — that provide wide-ranging legal services to low-income adult residents facing detention and deportation.
“Because there is limited state and local funding for removal cases, Orange County residents often are forced to search outside of Orange County or beyond for pro bono legal service providers,” the report says.
The federal government pays for legal representation in “certain limited circumstances” for detained immigrants, such as those deemed incompetent to represent themselves, according to the Orange County Justice Fund.
The report says that while implementation of a public defender system in immigration court may help ensure those facing deportation have access to legal representation, it will not address larger systemic issues.
“Perhaps of greatest concern is that immigration courts are not independent as they are under the power of the (federal government’s) executive branch, making them susceptible to each presidential administration’s immigration enforcement policies and priorities,” the report says. “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.”
Historically, the state has targeted its funding toward representation for those seeking asylum, but has neglected services for those facing imminent deportation, the report states.
The California Department of Social Services provided $1.6 million to eight Orange County nonprofit organizations asylum seeker services and just $322,500 for deportation defense legal services to Public Law Center in Santa Ana in fiscal 2020-21, the report says.
When individuals are unable to find legal representation, the Orange County Justice Fund said, they often represent themselves — at their own peril.
“Without intricate legal knowledge to prepare a legal argument against deportation, these individuals’ cases are often fast-tracked,” the report says.
During a news conference Thursday to unveil the report, 50-year-old Tin Nguyen of Garden Grove said he spent 23 years at California State Prison, Los Angeles County for murder and robbery before his life sentence was commuted in 2018 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown.
Nguyen, who obtained his bachelor’s degree behind bars and said he has accepted responsibility for a “horrible” crime, recalled that he had barely changed out his inmate clothing following his discharge from the Lancaster prison when federal officers immediately took him into custody for being an illegal immigrant from Vietnam.
Nguyen was quickly transported to Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County, where he remained for 10 months before pro bono attorneys secured his release.
Nguyen said he can’t forget the numerous detention hearings he had while in federal custody, noting that less fortunate detainees who didn’t have legal representation struggled to understand the complex proceedings.
“They could barely speak English,” said Nguyen, who will receive an MBA on Friday, May 26, from Cal State Los Angeles. “It’s not fair. That will always stay with me.”
The Orange County Justice Fund recommends unrestricted funding for legal service providers and grassroots organizations, especially those advocating for change.