Bond fund to help detained immigrants with ties to San Diego, Imperial counties

Otay Mesa Detention Center in south San Diego.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Immigration detainees who can’t afford to pay bond may soon get help from a fund established by a San Diego grass-roots coalition of local organizations.

The Borderlands Get Free Bond Fund, organized by the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, is accepting applications from immigrants with ties to San Diego County or Imperial County. It is the first bond fund specifically for immigrants held in or who live in California’s southernmost counties.

“We know it’s usually the people with the lowest incomes in our communities that end up suffering the most when it comes to detention, because going through the system, it gets really expensive,” said Lilian Serrano, chair of SDIRC. “This moment is critical.”


Serrano said that as someone who lives in a mixed-status family, she has seen firsthand how much people struggle to pay bonds to get loved ones out of detention while they fight to stay here.

The detained person is often one of the main breadwinners for the family, she said. Since that person isn’t earning income while in custody, the family may not have enough money to pay rent, let alone attorney fees or bond.

“I know people who are really close to me that have basically sold everything they owned or gotten in debt. They have done everything from tamales sales and raffles to asking to borrow money from neighbors,” Serrano said. “In my own family, I have people who are still years later paying back the money they had to come up with.”

Immigration detention facilities are not supposed to hold people for punishment. Officials have the authority only to detain people waiting for immigration court if they believe those individuals will not show up for hearings or are dangerous to society.

Assigning a bond amount is one strategy the federal government uses to ensure people show up for immigration court. That amount can be set by a judge at a bond hearing, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials can set a bond as part of their decision to release someone.

The minimum bond for immigration court is $1,500. For people from low-income families or arriving asylum seekers who may not have family in the U.S., even that amount can be prohibitive, advocates say.


Monika Langarica, an immigration attorney, said she’s had many clients who have struggled to pay the minimum bond, including one who has been in Otay Mesa Detention Center for about eight months. He was offered a bond about two months ago, but because he is an asylum seeker who hasn’t yet been in the U.S., he doesn’t have anyone to help him pay.

For others who already have green cards and are facing court because the government wants to take them away, getting out of detention means a chance to reunite with family and to keep working so that the immigrants have money to pay attorneys, Langarica said.

She’s been dreaming about a bond fund since she started working in San Diego a couple of years ago.

“As somebody who does the work of participating in the literal liberation of people, getting people out of detention centers and cages, it’s powerful,” Langarica said. “The impact to people who are released is huge. There’s no way to overstate it.”

She said she’s elated about what the fund means not only for her clients who are struggling to pay, but also for detained people who don’t have attorneys.

Although people facing criminal court are given attorneys if they are unable to pay for their own, that does not happen in immigration court.


Studies have shown that having an attorney significantly affects the outcome of a case, and hiring an attorney while inside a detention center is difficult. The majority of people in immigration detention do not have lawyers representing them, Langarica said.

Being detained and unrepresented means even worse odds for winning a case, Langarica said, because the detainee has to try to gather evidence or obtain document translations from inside the facility.

Elizabeth Lopez, an immigration attorney who works exclusively with asylum seekers, had a recent client who was a torture survivor and could not afford the $3,000 bond amount ICE officials offered him to get out of detention.

Being in detention caused depression, Lopez recalled, and made it difficult for her client to gather enough evidence to prove what he had been through. Another client’s family ended up collecting money from community members to help him pay.

“People just don’t understand that torture survivors should not be imprisoned,” said Lopez, who is executive director of the Southern California Immigration Project. “It just re-traumatizes them.”

Ali Torabi, a local activist who is on the committee that will decide which applications get approved for the bond fund, said giving immigrants a chance to get out of detention resonates with him because of what happened to his mother years ago.


Torabi, a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, came to the U.S. from Iran with his mother and brother when he was a child. They came on visas and overstayed.

When his mother tried to adjust her status and went for an interview with immigration officials in 2010, she was arrested and taken to Otay Mesa Detention Center, he said.

He remembers feeling helpless, not knowing when she would get out or who to turn to in the community.

ICE held his mother for several months before releasing her. The agency couldn’t deport her to Iran because the U.S. doesn’t have relations with the country, he said.

As an activist, Torabi hears from community members, especially in North County, whose parents have been detained under the current administration’s policies.

“Family separation, it takes place at the border, but it doesn’t stop at the border,” Torabi said. “It’s been happening within the states for decades.”


Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.