25 Years of the Florence Project – A Reflection on the Past, Present, and Beyond

by Lauren Dasse, Executive Director of the Florence Project

25 logoThis has been a year of celebration, which in our line of work, can be difficult. While we continue to face challenging legal cases, increased need for social services, and a steady stream of children, women, and men in immigration detention in Arizona, we cherish the victories and important work that the Florence Project staff and volunteers have been doing for the past 25 years. We also deeply value your support to the Florence Project—support that allows us to continue this important work.

In 1989, attorney Chris Brelje, supported by his law firm Lewis & Roca (now Lewis Roca Rothgerber), answered Immigration Judge John J. McCarrick’s call to the legal community to assist detained immigrants in Florence, Arizona. Thus, the Florence Asylum Project began, which is now known as the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project. The Florence Project remains the only organization in Arizona that provides free legal services and coordinated social services to children, women, and men detained while fighting their immigration cases. While our mission hasn’t changed over the past 25 years, our flexibility has allowed us to strategically respond to growing need.

Our work with detained immigrant men and women began in the small prison town of Florence; however in 1998, we began working in neighboring Eloy to serve adults detained in a large detention center, including many asylum seekers seeking refuge in the U.S. from all over the world. While the number of unaccompanied minors making the dangerous journey north drastically increased last year, the Florence Project has been serving immigrant children for the past 15 years. Our Children’s Program has expanded in order to serve the increase of abused, abandoned, and neglected children who need our help, growing our office in Phoenix and opening an office in Tucson. Finally, our Social Services Program began in 2001, recognizing that our clients have more than just legal cases and need extra support to obtain release and successfully settle into our communities.

We’re excited about what is on the horizon to strategically address the needs of detained immigrants in Arizona. We will continue to hone our cutting-edge legal services, which consist of legal representation, pro bono case placements, and assisting those pro se who are forced to represent themselves in court because there remains no public defender system in immigration court. We are thrilled to report that we are increasing our social workers on staff to holistically serve our clients, and our long-time law firm supporter Perkins Coie is funding a Legal Director position at the Florence Project for two years. The Legal Director will allow us to deepen our advocacy with national partners, and take the most challenging of legal cases on appeal, even to the 9th Circuit.

While in many ways we wish we didn’t have to exist, we are proud of the work that we do on a daily basis, working with people who are marginalized and in traumatic settings. Many of our clients would not have access to information or legal assistance without the Florence Project staff that visit them to offer a know-your-rights presentation, materials, pro bono placement, or legal representation.

We will continue to treat people with dignity and fight for basic human rights, to protect those fleeing harm, and keep families and communities together. Thank you for standing with us for the past 25 years, and for many years to come. We could not do our work without you; indeed, our victories are your victories.