ICE detainee defense

Sister Marlys Jax, a board member of Southeastern Minnesota Interfaith Immigrant Legal Defense, speaks Wednesday during a press conference where it was announced the group has hired two legal agencies to represent area people who are in ICE detention. (Matt Stolle/

A Rochester area nonprofit has hired two immigration defense agencies to begin offering legal services to people in ICE detention from Southeastern Minnesota. 

The announcement was made Wednesday by Southeastern Minnesota Interfaith Immigrant Legal Defense (SMIILD), a coalition of Rochester area churches and faith communities, at a press conference at Assisi Heights. The news comes eight months after the nonprofit formed and began raising money. The nonprofit has raised nearly $50,000 for a legal defense fund.

"We have a variety of faith traditions that all, it turns out, have the same moral compass, which points us in the direction of treating all people of all backgrounds with justice," said Phil Wheeler, a SMIILD board member. 

Unlike the criminal court system, individuals in immigration court are not entitled to a public defender if they can't afford a private attorney. That often leaves them at the mercy of a complex legal system that can be difficult to navigate without the benefit of a lawyer.

And with the number of people in ICE detention increasing under the Trump Administration, the demand for legal services far outstrips the ability to meet the need, immigration experts say. 

"For those who are in detention, the whole immigration detention machinery really is designed to coerce people to give up," said Sarah Brenes, director of the refugee and immigrant program for The Advocates for Human Rights, one of the two agencies hired by SMIILD. "The people that have a fighting chance in their cases will choose not to fight unless they have an attorney." 

In February (the latest data available) 97 Olmsted County residents faced pending immigration cases, according to statistics compiled by SMIILD. And of those, 39 were not represented by an attorney.

Experts say that legal representation can have a dramatic impact on the outcome of an immigration case. A study of immigration cases in New York found that an individual was six times more likely to avoid deportation if they had an attorney. 

The Rochester nonprofit signed a contract with The Advocates and the Immigration Law Center of Minnesota earlier this month. Brenes said the partners have just begun to work out a process for identifying area people in ICE detention whom they might represent. 

Wheeler said the fund was set up to prioritize residents from Olmsted County and Southeastern Minnesota. Potential clients must have an income less than two times the poverty level. The defense fund is focused on those in ICE detention because those are the people at the "highest risk of being summarily deported," Wheeler said. 

SMIILD board members sought to address concerns that violent criminals might end up benefiting from the legal representation provided through the nonprofit.

Wheeler noted that 90 percent of the immigrants detained by ICE are people who have never been charged with an aggravated felony or drug offense but instead face a minor violation. And 40 percent had been charged with no other violation than their immigration-related offense. 

"If you are overdue on a parking fine, you can end up in ICE detention," Wheeler said. "That's not grounds for destroying your family and your life." 

Officials say donations for the legal defense fund came from a range of faith communities and individuals, including St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Christ United Methodist Church, First Unitarian Universalist Church, Holy Ground Catholic Community and the Quakers. A grant was also provided through the Roman Catholic Diocese of Winona-Rochester and the Sisters of Francis held a couple of fundraisers.

Brenes said she is unaware of any other community in Minnesota to raise money for a defense fund for the benefit of area immigrants and others facing immigration proceedings. 

"Rochester is a pioneer in this," she said. "We've had some county and city governments come forward and organize themselves for this. But at least from Minnesota, it's a first." 

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