Building defense from scratch

Many parts of the country do not have existing legal programs with significant experience in or capacity to provide removal defense. Legal service providers launching new programs have sought creative solutions and opportunities for collaboration or mentorship.

After the 2016 elections, government officials in Dane County, Wisconsin, reached out to a collaborative of immigrant-serving organizations to ask how the county could best meet the needs of local immigrant communities. The collaborative identified a long-standing gap in legal services: no free program existed for people the federal government targeted for detention and deportation. In response, the county created the Dane County Immigration Assistance Fund and selected the Community Immigration Law Center (CILC) and Immigrant Justice Clinic (IJC) at the University of Wisconsin School of Law to provide representation through the new program. IJC brought on an interim director with detention experience, and CILC—which had previously conducted free legal clinics and consultations as an entirely volunteer-run organization—hired Aissa Olivarez, its first full-time deportation defense attorney. CILC grew over the next three years with continued county funding and new funding from the city of Madison, enabling the fund to hire two additional attorneys.To read more about the launch of the center, see Lisa Speckhard Pasque, “Dane County Receives Grant to Defend Immigrants in Danger of Deportation,” Capital Times, September 19, 2017,; for more on the center’s expansion, see Lisa Speckhard Pasque, “Madison Immigration Law Center Seeing Positive Results, Expanding,” Capital Times, June 12, 2019,

Olivarez shared several reflections intended to guide other legal teams that are starting new deportation defense programs.Aissa Olivarez, managing attorney, Community Immigration Law Center, August 28, 2020, via e-mail. It was critical to quickly identify key stakeholders to help support the launch of a program and publicize the new services. Olivarez worked with the private immigration bar, whose members shared best practices and advice about the local detention center and immigration court. Her participation in the SAFE Initiative allowed her to learn more from similar programs around the country. She said it was also important to collaborate with the newly created Dane County Immigrant Affairs Office, whose liaison, Fabiola Hamdan, helped Olivarez build trust with local immigrant communities. Hamdan also helped identify people ICE had detained and provided holistic wraparound services to clients and their families.

With growing activism propelling universal representation, providers throughout the country are establishing similar collaborations to support new programs. When the city of Atlanta launched an Immigrant Defense Unit within the Office of the Public Defender, for example, an advisory committee—consisting of representatives from the mayor’s office and private and nonprofit attorneys with significant experience at the local detention center—helped design the program and support the program’s sole attorney. And when the United Farm Workers (UFW) launched a program in California’s Central Valley, the group partnered with Centro Legal de la Raza, an Oakland-based provider with substantial removal defense experience, to house, train, and mentor the new staff attorney. After the initial training period, the UFW attorney relocated but continued to receive remote mentorship and supervision from Centro Legal. Although it is best to have experience and supervision in-house, these types of arrangements can help bolster new programs until funding capacity allows for more comprehensive staffing.