Universal Access to Legal Defense in Hennepin County, MN

Photo: Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota


In 2017, Hennepin County embarked on creating a universal legal representation fund in response to a large scale increase in anti-immigrant policing following Trump’s election.  In 2017, Sheriff Rich Stanek ramped up his collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and increased immigrant arrests in support of his already well-established jail-to-ICE custody deportation pipeline. The Sheriff publicly bragged about how many people he was deporting, specifically targeting  Latinx and African immigrant communities. He was even selected as one of the large-county sheriffs invited to a White House luncheon and strategy session with President Trump. This, coupled with other events, such as a high-profile incident in which a transit officer questioned a young man on a Minneapolis city train about having a ticket to ride then followed up with a question about immigration status – an inquiry far from his jurisdiction spoke to the depth of the anti-immigrant sentiment in the department. It is also an example of how President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric inspired local cops and county deputies to use their authority, while on the clock, to support the president’s ICE expansion. This gross overreach of authority, along with a number of similar anecdotes surfacing from within the pro-ICE law enforcement community,  inspired Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene to take immediate action. 

Commissioner Greene’s goal was to curtail the sheriff’s ability to coordinate with ICE, to shut down his jail-to-ICE pipeline, to provide due process to all residents of Hennepin County, and to account for the taxpayer dollars wasted by the sheriff’s overreach of authority in coordination with the federal agency.  The commissioner considered a variety of policy options to interrupt collaboration with ICE, including passing a sanctuary county law, cutting the sheriff’s budget, and banning arrests in county courthouses and service centers. Ultimately her office concluded that the sanctuary law wouldn’t have teeth, that state limitations prevented budget cuts to the sheriff’s office, and that she didn’t have the power to change the sheriff’s policies. 

Accordingly, her office partnered with then-Member of Congress Keith Ellison (D-MN5) to demand that the sheriff disclose how much his department was spending on ICE collaboration. The strategy was to inform residents on spending levels in the hopes that it would force the end of collaboration. The sheriff refused to cooperate. 

When this strategy failed, they created the Immigrant Legal Defense Fund to provide legal protection for as many vulnerable people as possible.  Hennepin County went with a universal model—one that allows all immigrants access to legal counsel without adding eligibility requirements for obtaining legal representation (with the exception that residents must show financial need). In addition to the legal defense fund, they also added a component that provides “ICE know-your-rights” materials to every person—regardless of what they were being booked for—which inform detainees of their right to refuse to speak to ICE agents. These materials are offered in the five most spoken languages in Hennepin County.



The commissioner and team worked very closely with Vera Institute, ISAIAH  (a faith-based organizing group), Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, MN Legal Aid, Navigate Minnesota, and others. These organizations had expertise that Commissioner Greene’s office did not, so they focused on the politics and narrative of passage. Commissioner Greene and her staff also leaned on the network of allies because they lacked the legal expertise required to design the program and decide how it should run. The Vera Institute in particular focused on the creation and logistics of the program.

It was a contentious policy, passing narrowly with a 4–3 vote. This, however, garnered a lot of attention and opposition along ideological lines. The opposition wasn’t about the cost of the program, but about opponents’ own support of ICE and the sheriff’s deportation pipeline, which they hid behind arguments over what does and doesn’t count as the county’s responsibility. To Commissioner Greene, health, welfare, and the ability of every resident to thrive are all the county’s responsibility, and the Immigrant Legal Defense Fund is a tool to help achieve these goals.

The first time the county passed the Immigrant Legal Defense Fund in the 2018 budget, it passed via a Commissioner Amendment – costing the county only $275k, out of a $2.4  billion budget. The fund is now a line item in the county budget.  In order to accommodate opponents to the fund, the county opted to keep ownership over its data and declined a matching grant to fund the work which would have entailed sharing data with philanthropic donors.



Unlike in criminal court, immigrants facing deportation are not entitled to court-provided legal defense, which Hennepin County law enforcement exploited. Law enforcement agents were intimidating people,  charging them with both felonies and misdemeanors,  and not explaining their legal rights during interactions. Without legal representation, many immigrants were pleading guilty to charges simply because they weren’t aware of their rights. 

By providing legal counsel to immigrants facing legal deportation, which is akin to defense lawyers in criminal court,  the Immigrant Legal Defense Fund put a dent in the jail-to-ICE deportation pipeline. Immigrants are often faced with the herculean task of navigating high-stakes deportation proceedings on their own, or at high personal expense. In providing a universal legal defense, the county has expanded due process to all of its residents, regardless of immigration status. 



  • State limitations prevented budget cuts to the sheriff’s office, which shaped the final outcome for universal legal representation.
  • Local government dynamics: The Hennepin County government was split on the decision. It was a contentious vote due to varying opinions of ICE, the sheriff’s deportation pipeline and what does or doesn’t count as the county’s responsibility. Cost was less of a factor.
  • Policy: This policy is a robust commitment to disrupting the deportation pipeline, implementing a highly-effective measure at no-cost for some of the county’s most vulnerable residents.


This case study was last updated: January 19, 2021.