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

San Francisco and Alameda County Public Defenders condemn 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 

San Francisco, California — The Trump Administration announced this week that the San Francisco Immigration Courts would stop hearing cases of detainees at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in California, 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.