Immigrants facing a deportation hearing in Dane County often have to fight the charge alone.
Deportation hearings are civil matters, so defendants don’t get public defenders, and there aren’t many pro bono immigration lawyers to go around.
“If they don’t have money, they don’t get a lawyer,” said Grant Sovern, president of the board at the Community Immigration Law Center.
But on Tuesday, the Dane County Immigration Coalition announced that two local organizations received a $100,000 grant to help defend immigrants in danger of deportation.
The Vera Institute of Justice provided the Safe Cities grant to the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the University of Wisconsin-Law School and the Community Immigration Law Center (CILC). Dane County is one of 12 areas across the nation to win the grant.
The funds will allow both organizations to hire immigration attorneys to represent immigrants facing deportation hearings. Previously, there was just one part-time immigration attorney providing free services in the area, Sovern said.
Immigration clinics and service organizations have been inundated since Donald Trump was elected president. The lack of pro bono lawyers in the area meant that immigrants ended up going to Chicago or Milwaukee for help with their defense, said Karen Menendez Coller, executive director of Centro Hispano.
But now, CILC is able to hire a full-time immigration attorney, with the UW law clinic bringing on a part-time lawyer as well. Plus, the partnership with Vera will provide help with technical assistance, data collection and, if needed, deportation defense training for other attorneys willing to volunteer their time, Sovern said.
An attorney on their side doesn’t guarantee that they won’t be deported, Sovern said, but it will “give them a fighting chance.” Studies have clearly shown that defendants who have a lawyer in immigration court have a much better chance of success, he said.
Dane County Immigration Coalition’s decision to apply for the Vera grant is one of several initiatives by the county to support its immigrant residents.
“To our immigrant community, I want to be clear: your local leaders do not agree with the actions being taken by our federal government,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said Tuesday. “In Dane County we welcome you, we respect you, we stand with you, we’re here to assist you during these challenging times.”
In February, Parisi announced the creation of a new county position of immigration affairs specialist.
Fabiola Hamdan was recently selected for the position, and will help coordinate county and nonprofit services to immigrant families, and direct immigrants to those services.
Parisi also established the Dane County Immigrant Assistance Fund, and the county put aside $150,000, housed by the Madison Community Foundation. While the Vera grant focuses on deportation defense, the county fund exists to help immigrants with issues like applying for citizenship, domestic abuse or refugee-related issues.
On Tuesday, Parisi said a few thousand dollars shouldn’t be a barrier to prevent someone from becoming a U.S. citizen. The county is asking for private donations to increase the fund.
He said that the nation’s “severe worker shortage” and thousands of job openings in Dane county, are one reason “we need them as much as they need us.”
“Immigrants are not the problem, they are a vital part of the solution,” he said.
Coller highlighted other community efforts to protect immigrant families, including the creation of sanctuary spaces in churches, the formation of crisis response teams and the establishment of a Madison branch of Voces de la Frontera, an advocate organization for immigrant rights.
The funding from the Vera Institute will be available in the next month, Sovern said.