Nonprofits use grant to represent immigration defendants

One permanent U.S. resident is among the people receiving free legal aid under a $250,000 agreement between Hennepin County and three nonprofit organizations that began screening and representing immigrant detainees earlier this month.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid attorneys say they've screened 28 people so far in October. They, along with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and the Advocates for Human Rights, have taken in six cases. The detainees are all at the Sherburne County Jail, which houses a large number of immigrant detainees.

"It's kind of a randomized selection of cases that are accepted that qualify for the grant," said Peggy Russell, managing attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. "People are desperate. They're at the Sherburne County jail and most of the detainees really have no idea what the immigration process even is."

The cases include cancellation of removal, asylum and a voluntary departure case, which involves a person who's agreed to leave the country but needs financial help to do so.

The agreement calls for universal representation, meaning attorneys represent anyone who qualifies regardless of the merits of a case. But it gives preference to people who were transferred from the Hennepin County jail to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.

Anne Carlson, an attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said one permanent resident currently in ICE custody sought legal help to argue against deportation.

"Permanent residents can be detained if they are subject to removal based on crimes or fraud or for whatever reason," she said. "So if the government has a legal reason to deport them, they're often detained."

Hennepin County commissioners approved the legal defense fund in August. Immigrant advocates and local elected officials had been trying to find ways to interfere with local law enforcement's cooperation with ICE.

"As practitioners, especially in the last two years, we've seen a really growing need for this kind of work," Carlson said. "We witness first hand, every day, the impact that detention has on clients and their families. And the threat of removal or deportation is very real for people."