Immigration Courts Move Bay Area Immigration Cases from San Francisco to Southern California

San Francisco and Alameda County Public Defenders condemn DOJ decision to remove detention cases out of San Francisco as interfering with their ability to defend detainees, demand transparency and seek a halt to recent decision

(From Press Release – SF Public Defender’s Office). — The Trump Administration announced this week that the San Francisco Immigration Courts would stop hearing cases of detainees at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility, which houses numerous public defender clients.

The decision by the Department of Justice will make it more difficult for San Francisco and Alameda County public defenders to appear in immigration court on behalf of immigrant detainees because those cases will now be heard in Southern California. Until this week, Bay Area immigrants held at the Mesa Verde Detention Center had their cases heard in San Francisco. Now those cases will be heard in a newly constructed courtroom in Van Nuys, Calif. — nearly 400 miles away.

In recent years, many public defender offices, including Alameda and San Francisco, began providing deportation defense services to indigent immigrants. Despite that, immigration courts made this decision without asking for public defender input and without consulting any of the communities impacted by moving these cases out of the Bay Area.

On January 14, 2019, the Alameda and San Francisco County Public Defenders requested the San Francisco Immigration Court meet with them to discuss moving cases. So far, federal authorities have not responded. The federal DOJ runs all immigration courts.

“Our program has provided vital legal services to hundreds of detainees who were unable to afford a lawyer, and this move will deprive immigrants of legal services they need,” said Francisco  Ugarte, head of the immigration unit at the San Francisco Public Defender. “Given our considerable role and the dramatic impact immigration proceedings have on immigrant communities throughout the state, the immigration courts have an obligation to consider our input, involve us in court planning, and meet with vital stakeholders.”

The Department of Justice has not provided a rationale for its decision.  There does not appear to be a demonstrable change in the number of immigrant detainees in Northern California.  The administration has also constructed a new immigration court in Sacramento, Calif. These new courts were built on the heels of successful efforts in the Bay Area to significantly expand the capacity for removal defense representation before San Francisco’s detained immigration courts.

“Moving cases away from legal resources is a step away from justice rather than a step towards it. The role of public defender offices in protecting due process and access to justice cannot be overstated,” said Raha Jorjani, head of the Alameda County Public Defender’s immigration unit. “We are indigent legal defense experts serving some of the most marginalized members of our communities. Rather than seeking input and getting the benefit of that expertise, the Court chose to lock us out of the process. And we will all lose as a result.”

The Alameda and San Francisco Public Defender offices seek a halt to the Court’s decision to move cases out of San Francisco and continue to seek a meeting with the San Francisco Immigration Court to discuss the upcoming changes and what deliberate steps if any have been taken to protect the due process rights of the individuals directly impacted by these decisions.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Bill Marshall

    Is there an assertion that SoCal folk cannot adequately defend folk facing immigration issues?  Or is there more to he story?  Budgets? Atty ‘job security’?

  2. Ann Block

    There is MUCH more to the story.  Most of these detainees are from NorCal, and their families, neighbors, witnesses, etc. are all up HERE.  To make all those people, including their attorneys, travel to appear before a judge in SoCal is a huge cost and a denial of due process.   Attorneys that represent low income and indigent people are not funded to travel to represent their clients — there are airfares, car rentals, hotel costs, not to mention meals and just time.  I have to limit the number of detained folk I represent privately, as it is a 24/7 job at times — and I never charge for travel time or meals, just airfare, car rental/gas and hotels.  Here’s an example, fyi:  the last detained case I had that finished last summer involved about 6-7 flights to SoCal (San Diego), driving 2 hours to El Centro, spending at least one night, sometimes two.  The first judge I had refused to allow expert testimony by telephone, despite the fact that I had filed extensive written evaluations from both experts, and IJs have the immigrant themselves testify over “video-teleconference” all the time.  So the expert in Fresno had to fly down, the other expert (UCD professor, was then teaching abroad and unavailable except by phone).  We didn’t finish the hearing, and with a new judge, I finally got agreement to have expert witnesses testify by telephone.   Family members, however, who were testifying to their own hardship, needed to be physically present — for obvious reasons — and the travel was an incredible hardship.  One adult daughter, who had began having seizures during her father’s detention, ended up in the El Centro hospital’s emergency room after a seizure the night before a continued hearing.  I racked up thousands in costs, despite staying in cheaper hotels, and booking as inexpensive of flights as I could.  The prior judge had forced me to fly down to appear personally at a hearing, just to file an application!   

    I have never in over 30+ years of immigration legal defense, through Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama and now Trump, had such incredible obstacles, ridiculous procedures and a real attempt at intimidating attorneys to stand down, forced on us by the government — and it doesn’t come from the local levels — its the Trump administration at its highest level (e.g. Stephen Miller, William Barr, Ken Cuccinelli) that is decimating the justice system.  Immigration Judges, Government attorneys, asylum officers — are quitting in droves, being replaced, in large part by either “true believers” who care nothing about the Constitution and due process, or by those who hope they can hang on a short time and make a difference “under the radar.” The latter includes many that are still there, thank goodness.

    The transfer of cases away from their attorneys in San Francisco to the Van Nuys court is just yet another attempt by the government to deny access to counsel, cause immigrants who have been here for many years and even decades with strong ties to family and community in the U.S. to just give up, and ultimately to separate families of immigrants — in the hope that this will stem the “browning” of America.

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