Expanding Access to Quality Legal Representation in California

CGRS-California Directing Attorney Christine Lin and Staff Attorney Sayoni Maitra in San Bernadino with Hilda Cruz, Organizer at the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity

November 7, 2017 - With the passage of the expanded One California Immigration Services Funding program this past summer, the state of California is, for the first time, dedicating public funds for the legal representation of immigrants and asylum seekers facing deportation. California-based legal services organizations have been offered the historic opportunity to apply for state funding to carry out this critical work. But in parts of the state where immigrant legal services organizations are few and far between, this opportunity is largely inaccessible. In order to improve access to quality immigrant legal representation statewide, we must support advocates in these hard to reach regions to develop the infrastructure required to meet community needs.

Our team has been working hard to make CGRS-California’s training and technical assistance services known and accessible to advocates from all over the state. We have made an especially concerted effort to reach out to underserved communities in regions like the Central Valley, the Inland Empire, and Northern California. In early October, CGRS-California staff Christine Lin, Sayoni Maitra, and Moira Duvernay traveled to San Bernardino, California, to meet with advocates from San Bernardino and Riverside counties and lead a training on how to screen for asylum eligibility. We learned from these advocates that a substantial number of the undocumented individuals in their communities may qualify for asylum, and it could be a viable immigration remedy, but immigration law firms and targeted immigrant legal services organizations are sparse or nonexistent. Compounding the problem is that due to funding restrictions, many legal services organizations are not permitted to represent undocumented people in any capacity. As a result, there are very few local attorneys available to represent asylum seekers, and individuals with meritorious claims for protection are not pursuing them, just because they cannot access legal representation.

While in San Bernardino, we had the privilege of spending time with advocates from a number of stellar groups in the Inland Empire, including the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice and the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. The staff at the Legal Aid Society of San Bernardino were generous enough to provide their office to host the training. Our team was energized and inspired by the incredible work that these groups are doing to serve immigrants in their regions. They articulated to us a long-term vision that leverages local organizational capacity-building to build a strong, sustainable immigrant legal services community. This vision will require creating opportunities for attorneys to establish and join organizations dedicated to serving local immigrant populations, organizations that could eventually reap the benefits of public funding opportunities like One California.

In October, the CGRS-California team provided a training on “Working with Immigrants Experiencing Trauma” for the Legal Services of Northern California (LSNC)’s All Staff retreat held in Davis, California. We had the pleasure of meeting staff from several of LSNC’s offices and learned about the inspirational work they do to provide much-needed legal services to clients facing diverse challenges in 23 Northern California counties.

Looking to the immediate future, we will be supporting our new partners in efforts to educate not only local attorneys, but also community advocates and intake staff, on asylum and related forms of immigration relief. We hope to educate advocates who work with undocumented clients to recognize when an individual may qualify for relief and be able to refer them to the appropriate resources. Although the capacity of local legal services organizations is still quite constrained, it is our hope that providing advocates with this foundation will enable them to identify avenues of protection from deportation available to their clients and advise them on next steps.

Our CGRS-California team will continue to collaborate with advocates and organizations serving California immigrant and refugee communities and their representatives in historically underserved regions. We are enthusiastic about the opportunity to support local advocates in San Bernardino, Northern California, and across the state to make quality immigrant legal representation a reality for all Californians.