Immigrants get legal aid

By Juan Soto

Universal legal representation is on the way for more than 1,000 indigent immigrants facing deportation.

The City Council earmarked $4.9 million out of the $75 billion 2015 budget to provide a lawyer for foreign-born New Yorkers in immigration court proceedings.

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project will make New York the first jurisdiction in the nation to have a public defender system for poor immigrants that are facing deportation hearings in New York and New Jersey immigration courts.

The initiative started last year as a pilot program with a $500,000 allocation from the Council. It provided lawyers for 190 clients. According to advocates, 27 percent of those clients have been released from detention, compared to only 5 percent of the detainees who face the court hearings without legal representation.

Most cases are still pending, but at least seven defendants have won their cases and remain in the United States. On the other hand, others were deported because they had no legal right to stay in the country.

The pilot program “has shown that without the lawyers provided by the project, many indigent immigrants would have been deported, despite having a legal right to remain lawfully in the United States,” said Oren Root, director at the Vera Institute of Justice, one of the institutions coordinating the program.

Unlike criminal courts, defendants in immigration courts do not have the right to have an attorney. Advocates pointed out that immigration is complex, so immigrants without representation have difficulty trying to build a case in their favor.

The program “has ensured that many of its clients were released from detention while contesting their cases,” added Root.

Other cities across the nation, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, are studying the possibility of implementing this kind of program.

“Not only will this project go far in helping hundreds of immigrant New Yorkers gain access to legal representation, said Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), “but it will also create a network of support to ensure fairness for a community that has all too often been neglected.”

The project was established by several organizations, including the Vera Institute of Justice, the Cardozo School of Law, Make the Road, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Bronx Defenders and Brooklyn Defenders Services.

“By providing attorneys, New York City has set the bar for how cities and states that value their immigrant communities can ensure a true system of justice,” explained Peter Markowitz, professor at Cardozo School of Law.

Reach reporter Juan Soto by e-mail at jsoto@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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