SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — The County of San Diego is the first along the southern border to commit to paying legal fees incurred by immigrants facing deportation proceedings.

San Diego County approved funding for the program about a year ago. On Thursday, the free legal services were launched at a cost of $5 million per year.

San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said the board is committed to paying more money if necessary.

San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer. (Salvador Rivera/Border Report)

“We have a commitment at the board and from my colleagues, we’re going to be funding the program at full capacity,” said Lawson-Remer. “If the need is greater than that, we’re going to be there.”

The lack of appointed legal counsel forces thousands of migrants to go unrepresented in court every year, often to the detriment of defendants.

And according to the County of San Diego, 80 percent of migrants facing deportation can’t afford an attorney.

“Left to navigate the complex immigration legal system on their own, a person’s success rate of gaining any relief during their case is a mere four percent,” said Michael Garica, Chief Deputy Public Defender with the County of San Diego. “By contrast, when represented by counsel that success rate climbs to over 40 percent … this legal defense program will help close this disparity and promote the principles of justice and due process for all.”

Michael Garica is the Chief Deputy Public Defender with San Diego County. (Salvador Rivera/Border Report)

Garica admitted the program has its critics but insisted it will turn out to be a benefit to our legal system.

“Our program was established not to promote illegal immigration, but exactly the opposite, it’s meant to promote the lawful application of our immigration laws and to due process within all our courtrooms in the County of San Diego.”

The program will be limited to detained immigrants and those currently in alternative detention status, which means people who have been released on their own recognizance or released on bail or bond.

“When we keep America’s promise of equal justice for all, we give immigrants dignity and opportunity, we make the legal system more efficient and promote fairness and justice and we strengthen our values as Americans,” Lawson-Remer said.

Immigrants’ rights groups say the program will go a long way in helping immigrants navigate the asylum process.

“Today we celebrate a historic milestone for civil and human rights in San Diego County with the launch of this immigrant legal defense program,” said Norma Chavez Petterson, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Every San Diegan can be proud that this county is the first on the entire 2,000-mile U.S. southern border to provide detained immigrants access to counsel.”