The Florence Project was created in 1989 in response to a plea from immigration judge John J. McCarrick, who publicly urged Arizona attorneys to fill the gap in representation left by the absence of a public defender system in immigration removal proceedings—a gap that in his view threatened the statutory and constitutional rights of detained indigent immigrants. In response, attorney Chris Brelje, supported and encouraged by his law firm Lewis and Roca, spent a year establishing the project in Florence.
Originally called the Florence Asylum Project because it was primarily serving Central American asylum seekers, the organization soon changed its name to the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project to reflect the range of legal issues facing detained immigrants. With services first in Florence, the Project expanded its reach in 1998 to include legal services to immigrants detained at the Eloy Detention Center. In 2000, the Project expanded to provide legal services to unaccompanied immigrant minors. In 2001, the Integrated Social Services Program was established to address the diverse social service needs of especially vulnerable clients. In 2007, the Project launched the Arizona Defending Immigrants Program, providing training and consultations to public defenders about the immigration consequences of criminal convictions.
Today, the Florence Project is dedicated to providing free legal services to the more than 3,000 people detained on any given day in remote detention facilities in Florence and Eloy and children’s shelters in Phoenix. The Project also participates in local and national advocacy and outreach initiatives to amplify the voice of immigrant detainees and ensure they are treated fairly and humanely.
The Florence Project also acts as a national resource development center for “know your rights” materials for detainees, legal service providers and community organizations. Viewed as a model organization, the Project’s work at the Eloy Detention Center received the 2001 Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation and served as the blueprint for the national Legal Orientation Program funded by the Executive Office of Immigration Review and administered by the Vera Institute of Justice. In 2010, the Project was awarded the Community Leader for Justice Award by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. In 2012, the Project received the prestigious Emil Gumpert Award from the American College of Trial Lawyers.
The former INS, Bar associations, American Bar Association, U.S. Senate, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, and National Lawyers’ Guild have all publicly recognized the Florence Project’s local and national contribution to detained immigrants and its mission of building a more just and efficient judicial system.