SAN DIEGO (CN) – San Diego Superior Court judges played the role of teacher Thursday at a court boot camp for 100 local clergy members often confronted with judicial issues as faith leaders.
The Second Biennial Court-Clergy Conference included breakout sessions on court topics clergy members often grapple with including divorce and family court, bankruptcies and the opioid crisis.
Nearly 100 clergy members and 20 judges attended.
A popular session with Judges Tamila Ipema and Frank Birchak covered immigration and human trafficking – two areas of law which have flooded San Diego courts.
Ipema, an immigrant herself, is a former immigration defense attorney and prosecutor who said she knows immigration court “from all sides.” She said she hates the legal term “alien” used in court proceedings for undocumented immigrants, saying it “alienates noncitizens, but unfortunately that’s part of the law.”
The judge said immigration issues like the current legal battle over California’s sanctuary-state designation will be “tied up in the courts for a very long time.”
Ipema said it’s important for people to know what resources they can access if a family member is detained and goes through immigration proceedings because “people freak out and want to know where their loved one is.”
Birchak echoed Ipema, saying while immigration law “is a very tricky area of law because it’s constantly changing,” actual court proceedings are very slow to get resolved.
The judges fielded questions from faith leaders asking how the removal process works for immigrants and how to find out where someone is being held.
Birchak emphasized the importance of defense attorneys knowing what their detained client’s immigration status is. He said many people brought to the United States as young children often don’t know they aren’t citizens or legal residents until they become wrapped up in deportation proceedings.
The legal advice to clergy members was particularly timely since many Southern California churches have come forward since President Donald Trump was elected to offer support and even house undocumented immigrants who fear deportation under the new administration.
Court spokeswoman Julie Myres said many San Diego churches close to the border are significantly impacted by immigration, and many faith leaders were eager to get information on how to help their parishioners.
Ipema and Birchak also touched on the increasing problem of human trafficking in San Diego, which rakes in $810 million annually in the region and is the second most lucrative underground economy behind drug trafficking.
The judges told the clergy leaders it’s a long, difficult process to build trust with human-trafficking victims but that it is vital for getting victims to come forward and work with prosecutors to send traffickers to prison.
While Birchak said the judicial system has “come a long way” in helping trafficked victims get help rather than prison time, he said some trafficking victims do end up serving the same amount of time as their traffickers if they help recruit new victims.
When asked by a clergy leader how women in prison for human trafficking could get rehabilitated he said “it depends” on the circumstances, but noted the local nonprofits working to help trafficking victims become productive members of society.
Judge Laura Halgren organized the event and said she was inspired by other similar outreach programs in Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Bernardino.
Halgren said the event with clergy is the only organized event local judges do with adults and that the idea is “if we teach 100 clergy and they teach 100 congregants then that information is passed on to 10,000 people.”
More than anything, Halgren said the event is about clergy being able to “self-help” by getting familiarized with court resources and information they can use to help their congregations navigate the judicial system.
“The more educated people are, the better the whole system works for everyone,” Halgren said.