Wisconsin attorneys grant legal aid to immigrants along the border and within the state

Madison community members protest in solidarity with immigrants in Wisconsin and across the country. 

Image By: Amileah Sutliff

Wisconsin attorneys grant legal aid to immigrants along the border and within the state

While the southern border lies a thousand miles away, immigration issues still resonate for many members of the Wisconsin community, from immigrants who’ve made their homes in the state to attorneys and communities working to support them.  

Dane County has two pro-bono immigration attorneys — one from the county’s Community Immigration Law Center (CILC) and one from UW-Madison’s Immigrant Justice Clinic. Despite their efforts to serve all those in need of legal assistance, both attorneys are frequently at capacity, leaving many immigrants without representation.

“We might think that [immigration issues] are very far away from us … but we definitely have immigrant neighbors who are suffering through the vulnerability of not knowing what’s going to happen to them in the future,” CILC Attorney Aissa Olivarez said. “And they’re really seeking as much help as possible and could use our support at this time.”

The IJC and CILC: Working together for Wisconsin’s immigrant community

Olivarez has personally taken on cases of 35 Wisconsin immigrants to provide legal representation for them in court during her first year as CILC’s first full-time attorney.  

The CILC helps immigrants find legal representation as well as provides legal consultation to hundreds of people each year through free, biweekly clinics where volunteer attorneys answer questions on immigration law and offer tools to research information related to their case on their own.

Olivarez focuses on removal defense — helping people remain in the U.S. who are at risk of being deported — and accepts as many cases as she can in order to ensure everyone has a chance at an attorney no matter their financial situation. 

The IJC provides free legal services to Wisconsin’s immigrant community, while simultaneously training UW-Madison law students. IJC Director Erin Barbato teaches six to eight students each year under her law license, allowing them to learn from real experience.

Barbato accepts about one case per month, but since her first job is teaching, she has to be thoughtful about which cases she takes. 

Often, she selects those of asylum seekers and children because she believes it is the vulnerable individuals who most “need this kind of really holistic representation and also what is a good learning experience for the students.”

The nearest immigration court to Madison is Chicago and the additional travel time and cost is another reason many people in this jurisdiction don’t have representation, according to Olivarez.

The attorney and their clients must leave early in the morning or stay late into the night because immigration hearings start at either 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. and they typically lack funds to stay overnight. 

“Appearing in court at 9 a.m. after getting up at three in the morning is not the best way to practice,” Barbato said.

The IJC and CILC work together to provide support for detainees and immigrants in the community beyond those they represent in court.  

Once a month, Barbato and her IJC students visit Dodge County Correctional Facility — which serves about 500 people a year —  and meet with everyone who doesn’t have an attorney to give a “know your rights presentation.”

Recent policies spread thin resources thinner

National immigration policies created under Trump’s administration, along with the Dane County ICE raids that occurred this past fall, led to increased demand on already limited resources in the county and throughout Wisconsin. 

The CILC clinics have grown from seeing five to eight individuals over the three-hour sessions to 12 to 15, sometimes even 20.

“We’ve seen an increase in the number of people who want to know more about ‘what can I do to protect myself, to protect my children,’” Olivarez said.

The number of people detained far exceeds the capacity of Barbato and Olivarez. The IJC has agreed to direct all its funding — supplied only by the city and county — toward the CILC to try to hire another attorney to increase capacity, which both organizations have decided is a top priority.

In the meantime, local immigration attorneys have picked up some of the cases that Barbato and Olivarez can’t — but whether they can offer services pro bono depends on the firm’s resources. Occasionally, a pro bono attorney from the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago can also provide assistance. 

Ultimately a judge rules based on current immigration law, but Olivarez said studies show legal representation makes a significant difference in the court outcome.

There is only a four percent chance of an unrepresented immigrant winning their removal case and avoiding deportation, compared to a 48 percent chance of winning when they are represented by a competent attorney, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice.

While the Constitution grants a right to an attorney, this only applies to criminal cases. Since deportation is a civil case, only those able to find their own attorney are represented in court. Over the past several years, almost half of all immigration court cases have gone unrepresented, according to the same report.

Last summer, Barbato jumped on the opportunity to accompany a group of law students for a week of volunteering at detention centers in Dilley, Texas, where they would be able to see the early stages of the immigration process.

“It’s a really powerful way for students to learn the law and to serve some of the ultimately most vulnerable people in the world,” she said. 

From the border to the Midwest

Perla Rubio, a first-year UW-Madison law student from El Paso, Texas, found out about student trips to the border when she joined the Latino Law Student Association. She said it reminded her of what she witnessed at home and wanted to help.

For one week, Rubio and the other eight students experienced “stage zero,” working individually with women who had just crossed the border and hadn’t yet applied for asylum.

Asylum is protection granted by a nation to someone who is fleeing their native country because of persecution, violence or war.

People in the U.S. have a tendency to assume that the U.S. is “like paradise” for immigrants, without considering why they came or how difficult it is to relocate, Rubio believes.

“People don’t just come here because they want to most of the time, it’s because they are forced in one way or another,” she said.

At the border, the students explained legal terms and the legal process, sometimes simply defining what asylum was and where the women were in the process.

They encouraged the women to not feel afraid to share their stories so they could advise them what parts should later be shared with officials in order to strengthen their asylum case.

Immigrants in this stage do not have representation — they don’t know lawyers, don’t have money and the government does not appoint one.

Women told her in tears they had been raped, beaten or threatened at gunpoint, yet they still were filled with hope, Rubio said. 

“You can see the strength in them and that makes you feel like [you] need to fight for them because they are fighting for themselves,” she said.  “They need people that can be their voice, that know the system at some level and want to do something about it.” 

Rubio explained it was tough emotionally, but that the experience allowed her to gain a better understanding of the immigration system.

“I can visualize it because I know how it is and just knowing the issue with the border and the impact it has,” she said. 

Prior to Trump’s administration, students went on these trips without a professor. But because of the “complicated nature” of new policies, along with the emotional toll on students, Barbato said accompanying the students makes the experience better for them and those who they serve.

“[The] work has gotten substantially more difficult just in terms of the new immigration policies that are in place,” she said.  “Every day it feels like I’m having to learn something new about how our government is managing a certain type of a particular asylum. It’s all changing.”

Following their time in Texas, both her and her students gained a better idea of how these policies play out on the ground so they can apply this knowledge in the future, whether providing aid at the border or in Wisconsin, she said.

Individuals, communities feel the urge to help

Being removed from the border puts Wisconsinites in a unique position because they aren’t as numb to immigrants’ stories and are more likely to act sympathetically, according to Rubio.

Both Rubio, whose family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 12, and Olivarez, who was born in the U.S., said they were motivated by the stark difference they saw between their own privilege and that of immigrants they’ve worked with.

Rubio said she was “amazed” by people who don’t have this connection and are still ready and willing to help.

“Wisconsin has shown me that there are compassionate people wanting to help. There are a lot of people actually not against the idea of allowing immigrants to come here,” she said.

However, the state could be doing more to support the immigrant community — like granting driver’s licenses or in-state tuition for undocumented residents, according to both Barbato and Olivarez.

“[These policies would] communicate that the state of Wisconsin and our local communities value our immigrant communities,” Olivarez said.

Community members can educate themselves on how to advocate for their immigrant neighbors and the issues they’re facing. Additionally, they can volunteer to drive people to court in Chicago. 

Meanwhile, community organizations like Centro Hispano, founded in 1983 by local volunteers to serve Madison’s Latinx community, provide additional support for the local immigrant community through programming and services for youth and families.

Both Olivarez and Barbato expressed hope that one day universal legal representation for immigrants will be possible.

“We want to make sure that we keep families safe and keep families together here in Wisconsin,” Olivarez said.

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