Immigrant Activists Request Funding for Legal Aid

José Sánchez, 19, was able to avoid deportation thanks to the services of a pro bono lawyer. (Photo by Edwin Martínez via El Diario)

José Sánchez, 19, was able to avoid deportation thanks to the services of a pro bono lawyer. (Photo by Edwin Martínez via El Diario)

In May 2014, José Sánchez said goodbye to his eight brothers, kissed his mother and hugged his dad before leaving for “el norte” (the north). The 17-year-old left behind the small mountain town of San Manuel Colohete in Honduras ‒ population 15,000 ‒ and headed for the Mexico-U.S. border, where he arrived three days later only to be arrested by the border patrol.

After receiving an appointment to appear in court to start his deportation process, Sánchez traveled to New York where his cousin lived. Not knowing anything about U.S. laws, he complied with his court appearance alone, without a lawyer, certain that he would be deported.

“Luckily, an angel appeared to me. I was sure that I was going to be sent to Honduras right then and there, but a lawyer came to me at the court and told me that she could help me. She put me in contact with an organization called The Door and they fought for my case. My deportation case is now closed,” said Sánchez, now 19, who is waiting for his work authorization to be able to apply for residency and start living the “American dream.”

Not all immigrants who have their cases seen by the court have the same fate. This has prompted activists, politicians and attorneys working for community organizations to ask the city to invest $13.5 million to provide undocumented people with legal assistance at no cost to them, giving them a chance to win their cases in front of immigration judges.

“In the criminal justice system, everyone has the right to be appointed an attorney. In immigration court, however, no one is allowed to have representation paid for by the government, so many of these immigrants end up without a lawyer. Because [immigration] law is quite complex, when they represent themselves they end up losing their cases,” said attorney Elizabeth Jordan, from The Door, an organization offering assistance to immigrants.

The lawyer joined several political leaders, activists and colleagues in a demonstration held on Wednesday at City Hall to ask Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Council to assign a significant portion of the new budget to this issue to avoid leaving immigrants to fend for themselves in court. The city’s budget is currently under evaluation.

“I have heard testimonies from many people who do not have a lawyer to represent them in immigration court. That’s why I am asking the city to assign these $13.5 million to provide them with legal services so that they can have more access to these superheroes who can help them,” said Council member Carlos Menchaca, who is the chair of the Council’s Committee on Immigration.

“We want to clarify that immigrants are not second-class people in this city. This is a petition for life, which will not only help individuals but entire families stay together,” said the elected official.

Carmen María Rey, deputy director of Sanctuary for Families’ Immigration Intervention Project, said that the lack of resources leaves many immigrants without legal support to fight their cases in court.

“Although 1 in 3 immigrants qualifies to obtain immigration relief, many do not know it, and nothing is being done to represent them,” said Rey. “In the end, we just concentrate on the easiest cases, and the complex ones are left behind.”

There are currently 60,000 immigrants in New York facing deportation processes. According to Camille Mackler, from the New York Immigration Coalition, many of them would be able to get a lawyer and expand their chance of staying if the city approved these resources.

City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Ramos said that funding of this type already exists to help immigrants because this is a main concern for de Blasio, who has promoted several programs along those lines.

“The $11.2 million in funding currently available through other legal services initiatives within the city’s budget represents a serious commitment to our immigrant communities. The level of financing allocated to the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative this year will continue to be $3.3 million, the same amount that the Council was allocating,” said Ramos. “This program and other legal assistance services have allowed more than 2,000 immigrants in New York to receive assistance with their legal cases, including asylum and legal residency and citizenship applications.”

Council member Vanessa Gibson also supported the activists’ petition, saying that several fellow Council members favor their $13.5 million request.

“We need to continue investing money in them, for their benefit and for their families’. They are here for a reason and they deserve to stay,” said the elected official, who agreed that having a lawyer is critical for people in immigration court seeking to have a chance at realizing the “American dream.”

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