by Meghann Garcia, managing editor
Aíssa Olivarez spends her days trying to help detained Latino immigrants who have made their home in Dade County, Wisconsin, return to their families and jobs, but last Tuesday provided a break from routine as she attended President Donald J. Trump’s State of the Union address as a guest of U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan.
Olivarez, a Texas native, is the first and only full-time staff attorney for the Community Immigration Law Center, which has been successful in about 70 percent of its cases.
The center accepts cases based on available resources rather than merit, which means Olivarez does not cherry-pick easily-winnable cases. It is a program the city and county governments in Madison, Wisconsin, have chosen to financially support, following the cessation of start-up funding provided by the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.
“In immigration court, you don’t have the right to a government-funded attorney,” she said, explaining that anyone who doesn’t have money for an attorney or access to free legal counsel will go to court against a trained prosecutor. “You don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know your rights.”
She tries to keep two to four cases on her desk each month in order to provide thorough representation to her clients, whom she often finds out about through a county social worker who mans a help hotline for families affected when their primary breadwinner is detained by Immigration and Custom Enforcement.
Pocan invited Olivarez to the address based on her work in the Madison community.
“Over the last two years, the Trump Administration has manufactured a humanitarian crisis on the southern border and escalated detentions of immigrants with either no prior criminal record, or with minor offenses such as traffic violations… Aissa’s work is more important than ever and that is why I have asked her to join me for this year’s State of the Union,” Pocan said in a statement released by his office.
Olivarez’s clients have varied backgrounds: some have overstayed their visas, others entered without inspection, and some have green cards. Some have previous contact with law enforcement, with previous criminal charges or convictions, while some – including clients picked up during a recent raid – have no criminal background.
Before accepting the position in Wisconsin, where she attended law school, Olivarez worked for the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen for one year. There, she represented children facing deportation.
When asked how her field has changed over the last several years, she spoke to former President Barack Obama’s deportation record.
“The Obama administration gained the reputation of having the most people deported. Obama was deporting people,” she said. “There are a couple of big differences. First, the Obama administration had priority enforcement. They decided people who were violent criminals were priority for deportation. We saw ICE making targeted arrests based on these priorities.”
Less than one month after Trump took office, Olivarez said, things changed.
“It became anyone who is undocumented,” she said. “We see people now being arrested for driving without a license… That might trigger removal proceedings. We’re definitely seeing an attack on the immigrant community, and people are feeling vulnerable.”
Despite being disheartened by the stance this administration has taken toward immigrants, Olivarez felt attending the president’s address was important. She wanted to be an advocate for the people she represents, and she says she was energized by the people around her at the event.
“I don’t think Trump inspired much positive change from the words that he was using,” she said. “The House is ready to fight back and put their foot down.”
She was excited to meet Sharice Davids of Kansas, whose campaign Olivarez followed last year, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Olivarez spoke to both women about her work in Madison. She also met the father of a Parkland, Florida, shooting victim.
“This is a very important time in our history for us to make the right choices… for the people who are most vulnerable,” Olivarez said.
The way she interacts with federal prosecutors has also changed. Previously, she said, immigration attorneys could work with prosecutors on a case-by-case basis regarding their clients’ special circumstances. Now, an email communication system that was previously in place has shut down, and prosecutors are aiming to open and close cases and appeal opposition victories.
“We’re having to use a lot more resources to fight all the way through an appeal,” she said, adding that immigration lawyers are working more like trial and criminal defense attorneys. “The tone and the rhetoric have really damaged the community.”
Funding, as well as having one attorney on staff, not only limits her caseload but also office supplies. On Friday morning, Olivarez was happy about recently procuring a set of filing cabinets.
Private donations are accepted at Community Immigration Law Center, c/o Christ Presbyterian Church, 944 East Gorham St., Madison, WI 53703.
Olivarez, originally of McAllen, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in government from the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. She taught first-graders in Austin for several years and was seeing families impacted by detention and deportation.
The experience gave life to a long-time dream to attend law school, which in turn has inspired her to be a champion for human rights and civil rights for immigrants.
Olivarez is married to Uvalde High School class of 1997 graduate Victor Garcia. They have one daughter, 4-year-old Carolina, who Olivarez said was born in Wisconsin but is a Texan at heart.
Olivarez is the daughter-in-law of Angelica Garcia, who works for the Farm Service Agency office in Uvalde, and Javier Garcia, who is retired from the city of Uvalde.
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