(CN) – A microcosm of the nation’s massive deportation system is playing out in a small courtroom in San Francisco, where immigrants held in detention centers miles away speak to judges through interpreters and flat-screen TVs.
“I would like to find an attorney, but I don’t have money,” Benjamin Hernandez-Meza told Immigration Judge Valerie Burch during a hearing Wednesday. “I can only see from one eye. I have already been declared with a disability.”
Hernandez-Meza is one of about 1,500 immigrants detained in four facilities within 300 miles of San Francisco, where deportation cases are tried and decided by 19 immigration judges at two courthouses.
Hernandez-Meza said he came to the U.S. at age 18, worked in the fields of Fresno, and is partially blind and deaf due to diabetes.
The judge told a security guard to hand Hernandez-Meza a list of free immigration attorneys, though he said he could not read. His case was delayed another two weeks to give him more time to find a lawyer.
Unlike in criminal cases, immigrants facing deportation have no right to an attorney unless they pay for one or find one to take their case pro bono. And a stark disparity exists in outcomes based on access to counsel.
A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania Law Review found detained immigrants with an attorney were four times more likely to be released on bond, 11 times more likely to seek asylum or other relief from deportation, and twice as likely to successfully obtain the relief they sought.
According to that same study, 37 percent of immigrants have no legal representation in removal cases, a proportion that shrinks to 14 percent for those held in detention.
Responding to newly expanded deportation policies under President Donald Trump, government officials in San Francisco have sought more funding to provide legal representation for immigrants facing deportation.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee pledged an additional $1.5 million to nonprofits that provide legal counsel for immigrants.
But the city’s public defender Jeff Adachi is pushing for millions more in funding that would allow his office to hire more staff and lawyers dedicated solely to representing detained immigrants.
“We believe that San Francisco should follow the example of New York and New Jersey, which, through their public defender agencies, provide legal representation to all people in custody facing removal or deportation,” Adachi said in a statement in January. “This is the only humane position for us to take as a sanctuary city and a city that stands for due process and fairness for all.”
The city of New York spends about $30 million a year to provide universal representation for detained immigrants, according to a report by the San Francisco Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office.
A proposal seeking $2.2 million to establish a new unit in the city’s public defender’s office dedicated to defending immigrant detainees is currently making its way through the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee.
Meanwhile, California state lawmakers are considering Senate Bill 6, which would create a state program to fund legal representation for immigrants fighting deportation. Another piece of state legislation, Assembly Bill 3, would establish state-funded regional centers to train defense attorneys and public defenders’ offices on immigration law.
Despite San Francisco’s current funding of $3.8 million to nonprofits that provide free legal aid to immigrants, many detained aliens are forced to go without representation.