Immigration Legal Defense and Universal Representation

As a city, our duty is to keep our community safe and secure and to protect the well-being of our residents. By upholding due process, we maintain trust in the justice system and our local institutions, including law enforcement. Having efficient, effective and fair representation in immigration proceedings is the best way to keep the system working and keep us safe.

About Universal Representation

The lack of a right to government-funded counsel in the immigration justice system violates due process. One way in which the government deports immigrants from the United States is by placing them in removal proceedings in immigration courts administered by the U.S. Department of Justice. Removal (also known as deportation) is one of the most severe penalties a person can face under law.

For those deported, these proceedings carry serious consequences—removal from one’s home, separation from one’s family, loss of employment, and potential violence or death on return to the country of origin. Despite the high stakes, people in immigration proceedings do not have the right to government-funded counsel. They must navigate complicated and ever-changing immigration law alone against a trained government attorney, without the help of a lawyer.

Considering the severe consequences of deportation, the lack of a right to government-funded counsel in removal proceedings violates due process and the basic fairness considered fundamental to the justice system. As the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which has been held applicable to deportation proceedings, states, “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The right to appointed counsel, which the U.S. Supreme Court describes as “necessary to insure fundamental human rights of life and liberty,” has thus far only been applied in criminal proceedings. Yet the complexities of immigration law and the severe consequences at stake make it unjust and unreasonable to expect individuals to represent themselves competently in immigration court.

The lack of appointed counsel means that tens of thousands of people each year go unrepresented, including asylum seekers, longtime legal residents, immigrant parents or spouses of U.S. citizens, and even children.

Universal Representation in Santa Ana

The foreign-born population in Santa Ana represents an important and diverse share of our community. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey, approximately 153,900 immigrants reside in Santa Ana—46 percent of the total population. Of those, 102,000 are non-U.S. citizens. Furthermore, four out of five children in Santa Ana have at least one immigrant parent—and the vast majority of those children are U.S. citizens.). In response to concerns expressed by City residents, in addition to advocacy efforts by community organizers, the City has played an active role in supporting immigrants in Santa Ana.

On October 17, 2017, the City Council approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the Vera Institute of Justice to join their SAFE (Safety and Fairness for Everyone) Network to be eligible for one-time funding to support immigration legal defense services, along with on-going technical assistance and training, data collection, and research support. At this same meeting, the City Council also approved an agreement with Immigrant Defenders Law Center (ImmDef) to serve as the City's legal service provider (LSP) to provide immigration legal defense services. These services are provided under the universal representation model, which is publicly funded deportation defense for all.

Under the universal representation model, ImmDef provided full-scope removal defense assistance to individuals, regardless of the immigration relief available. Whereas traditional legal service programs may identify eligibility for representation through screening for viable immigration relief, the universal representation model ensures each client, regardless of potential relief, is given an opportunity to be heard. ImmDef works closely with community-based organizations, such as Building Healthy Communities, legal service providers, and other immigration advocates to ensure that their services are accessible to the Santa Ana community.

ImmDef opened their Santa Ana office, located at 2121 N Tustin Avenue, and began operations in March 2018. Since then, ImmDef has initiated the representation of 44 Santa Ana residents in removal proceedings. Eleven cases have closed so far, which includes three Santa Ana residents who obtained relief from removal. The other 33 cases remain pending on both the detained and non-detained dockets. ImmDef' s clients represent a wide cross- section of Santa Ana residents, including single mothers, fathers, homeless individuals, youth, older adults, and victims of domestic violence. Client examples include a long-time Santa Ana resident single mother fleeing domestic violence, a father of six U. S. citizen children, and a young man fleeing his abusive father in his home country. Since its inception in 2017, the SAFE Network has grown to a total of 18 jurisdictions across 11 states. Network members, including the City of Santa Ana, have committed public taxpayer dollars toward legal representation for immigrants in their communities facing deportation. During its first two years, the SAFE Network has represented 744 clients with deep roots in the United States. Drawing on program data, the findings from year two of the SAFE Network demonstrate the program’s success in ensuring due process and maximizing successful outcomes in deportation proceedings.

At the October 16, 2018 meeting, the City Council amended the agreement with ImmDef to extend the term for an additional year, from November 1, 2018 through October 31, 2019, increasing the amount of the agreement by $80,000 to continue to fund immigration legal defense services to Santa Ana residents. On November 5, 2019, the City Council amended the agreement with ImmDef to continue to provide immigration legal defense services on a month-to-month basis, until a competitive Request for Proposals process was completed.

For more information about the SAFE Network, visit Vera's website.


Looking for Services? Contact Immigrant Defenders Law Center

To contact Immigrant Defenders Law Center, visit their Santa Ana office:


2101 N Tustin Avenue, Santa Ana, CA 92705
(by appointment only, please call to schedule an appointment)

Phone: (213) 634-0999
Fax: (213) 282-3122