Seeking sanctuary in Madison

CILC runs a legal clinic for low-income immigrants
Seeking sanctuary in Madison
Photo by Kaia Calhoun

Two Fridays a month, Aissa Olivarez tries to get some answers. The attorney on staff at the Community Immigration Law Center, or CILC, helps run a legal clinic for low-income immigrants–people from more than 160 countries–since 2009. She and the other attorneys who support the CILC say they’ve been swamped with questions and concerns as state and federal lawmakers consider revamping immigration policy. In Wisconsin, the biggest issue is how possible crackdowns on so-called “sanctuary cities” would affect immigrants. While there is no agreement on the legal definition of a sanctuary city, it is generally understood that such communities limit their cooperation with federal authorities enforcing immigration laws.

We talked to Olivarez and president of the CILC board of directors Grant Sovern about what they’re hearing about this issue while dealing with immigration cases. This is an edited transcript of that interview.

As an attorney, what are you seeing on the front lines?

AO: There has always been need for assistance and not so many immigration attorneys nationally. We need more capacity to take on cases for people who really need help. I think right now with heavy immigration enforcement and with the political [debate], people are more afraid and want to be more proactive about what they can do about their status. I think that drives a lot of people into our clinic. Sometimes they don’t even have a specific question. Sometimes people come in for a neighbor, sometimes people come in for a friend and say, “I’m worried about this person. What can they do?” Or “What can I do even if they have no status at all?”

What questions do you get from people about the sanctuary city issue?

AO: “Sanctuary city” is kind of a dirty word right now. What does this mean for us? And does it mean we’re harboring criminals? And does it mean people are going to get away with things? We advise people what their rights are. If ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] comes to your door, you should ask the agents to provide proof of a warrant and who they are looking for. They can slip it under the door. The person named should go with ICE but without opening the door so as to let them in and put anyone else not included on the warrant at risk. If they come to your door and don’t have a warrant, you have the right to remain silent. You do not have to tell them who you are or what country you’re from. So we advise people of their basic constitutional rights here in the United States if they come in contact with any immigration authorities.

Do you feel there are more ICE actions being taken now than before?

GS: There is a lot more of this happening. We hear from their families, from schools where kids get picked up or families come home and ICE is waiting for them there. It’s happening at airports where people are turning the screws on people they wouldn’t have before. A lot of people feel like there is nothing we can do right now. But there is something we can do here. And the idea of the “sanctuary movement” is an outgrowth of that because people feel like they want to do something and Madison is a “doing” kind of place. This is the good part about a place like CILC; there is something we can do. If you provide a lawyer to people in deportation proceedings, like we’re doing with Aissa, people will not get deported, and there are facts that show this. Aissa and I just got back from a conference where they [presented the findings of] a multi-year study in New York where they started providing lawyers to everybody. [Before the program], 4 percent of people had some positive outcome once they got arrested for deportation. Now with lawyers in all those cases, 49 percent of the people have a positive outcome. So people in Madison said, “We can do that, too.” So we have Aissa now doing it, the UW Law School is now doing it and we’re going to start representing every person who gets arrested for deportation in Dane County. The sanctuary movement makes people feel good and feel like we’re standing up to something. We’re saying there is something we can do on the ground that will actually make a verified difference in people’s lives.

How should people be thinking about this issue from your perspective?

AO: I would tell them to think about the fact that we’re all in this together, we’re all a community. Law enforcement officers cannot do their job and the community cannot trust law enforcement officers if legislation like this is passed. Legislation that forces law enforcement officers to comply with such things leaves out a section of community [members who are] going to be afraid of speaking to the issues or reporting issues they are experiencing. I think that would have a far-reaching effect on the surrounding communities.

How do you respond to someone who says, “If these folks are in the country and undocumented, they didn’t come into the country via legal means. Being treated as such was a risk they took.”

AO: I would say we’re all human and everyone has the right to be protected by law enforcement. Because they live within the bounds of this state and country means undocumented people have certain rights. Maybe they don’t have a status or maybe there’s not a piece of paper connected to them. But they still have the right to feel protected in their own community.

Jessica Arp is assistant news director and chief political reporter for WISC-TV.