Pima County Legal Defender Isabel Garcia, who has made a name as an advocate for immigrants rights as much as criminal defender, has announced plans to retire.

Garcia, who has been the head of the legal defender’s office for more than 22 years, announced Monday in a letter to Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and the Board of Supervisors plans to retire.

“I will continue to participate to bring true, transformative, and equal justice in our community,” Garcia wrote in her resignation letter.

Garcia could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

“I feel like Isabel leaving is going to be a bad thing for our community,” said legal defender attorney Paul Eckerstrom.

Eckerstrom described the working environment Garcia fostered in the office as a family, saying she treated everyone with respect and kindness.

“Everybody looked at the legal defender’s office as a place known as a great place to work. I came here to work for her,” said Eckerstrom, who previously worked at the Arizona Attorney General’s and Pima County Public Defender’s offices.

The legal defender’s office has a staff of 46 and a budget of more than $4 million in the current fiscal year.

On the other side of the legal system, Garcia’s prosecutorial counterpart, County Attorney Barbara LaWall, said the legal defender has served the community well over the years.

“She has been a very passionate advocate for her clients,” LaWall said. “They couldn’t have done better than to have her for legal defender.”

LaWall also noted she and Garcia’s careers have run parallel from the start.

LaWall graduated UA law school in 1977 and went to work for the county attorney shortly after that. Garcia graduated UA law in 1978 and worked for the public defender.

But they weren’t adversaries on all points, LaWall said.

“Despite the fact that we are advocates against each other on criminal cases, we have worked together to try to get pay equity for our staffs,” LaWall said.

Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías said Garcia has served the community well as an attorney and advocate for special causes.

“It’d be great if we had more citizens of Pima County who cared about those who have less, those who try to improve their lives and those who come to the United States looking for a better place to live,” Elías said.

Garcia has long advocated for the rights of illegal immigrants in the community and against some of the federal government’s deportation practices. That advocacy drew national attention in July 2008.

Derechos Humanos, an immigrant rights group Garcia helped found, organized a protest of a Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio book signing event at a Tucson bookstore.

During the event, numerous students struck a piñata in the likeness of Arpaio until the head broke off.

Garcia, who attended the rally, then picked up the head and walked it through the bookstore parking lot.

The event sparked outrage and calls for Garcia’s removal as legal defender.

Following the incident, Garcia wrote: “That he (Arpaio) would come to Tucson to promote a book filled with lies, fear, and ignorant perspectives about immigrants, was especially appalling to us … We stand for the principles of peace and justice.”

Arpaio was among the many to call for Garcia’s removal.

An investigation the county conducted found Garcia had not participated in any illegal activity and was unaware students had brought the Arpaio piñata to the demonstration.

No disciplinary actions were taken.

Garcia’s last day as legal defender is scheduled for July 3.

Eckerstrom said he hopes whoever replaces Garcia can inspire people the way he said she has.

“I think Isabel over the years has been the biggest fly in the ointment of the criminal justice system that grinds people up,” he said. “Maybe it’s the end of an era, but I hope not.”

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or pmcnamara@tucson.com. On Twitter @pm929.