City Legal Assistance for Immigrants Leads to Fewer Deportations

Immigration court on Varick Street. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

In 2014, when Colombian immigrant Edgar Rodríguez found out there was a deportation order against him the first thing he thought was that he had no options and would be sent back to his country. After seeking advice on his case, he received help from a nonprofit organization. Today, he is awaiting his permanent resident card [or green card] and says that the lawyer he was assigned – at no charge – changed his life and prevented his expulsion from the U.S.

According to a report from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), cases such as Rodríguez’s have made New York the state where the largest number of immigrants have lawyers with them in immigration courts, leading to fewer deportations. Most of these attorneys are available thanks to programs subsidized by the city and the state. Both governments have made large investments in assisting immigrants.

The report reveals that, of the 340,962 cases seen in immigration courts between 2002 and 2018, 74 percent had legal assistance and 28 percent were issued a deportation order. A total of 91,680 were granted immigration relief, 91,041 are still in process and 91,224 received orders of removal.

“When I learned that I was going to be deported, I thought it was the end and that I would have to leave my wife and my children, especially because I don’t have money for an attorney, but the city’s lawyers supported me and saved me,” said Rodríguez, who at some point considered joining the 11,463 immigrants who agreed to leave voluntarily.

Susan Long, co-director of TRAC, confirmed that the fact that New York has the lowest rate of deportation orders is a result of the legal assistance offered to immigrants.

“It is very hard to be successful in court without representation because the law is quite complex, and it is very hard to represent oneself,” said the expert about the figures published in the report, which also paints a very different picture of states such as Texas. There, of the 574,000 immigrants who went through immigration court during the same period, 379,848 – more than 60 percent – were deported.

Betsy Plum, vice president of policy for the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), which is helping many undocumented people with their cases, said that the investment New York City has made in lawyers has been crucial in keeping families together.

“TRAC data unequivocally shows the direct correlation between legal representation in deportation cases and favorable outcomes,” said the activist. “The investment made by the city of New York in immigration legal aid has been invaluable to help ensure that more New Yorkers will have the lawyers they need to navigate the complex immigration court system.”

Although she praised the support offered by the city, Plum called on the administration and the City Council to assign more resources to provide free attorneys.

“As New York City enters the new local budget season, we will fight to maintain and expand the resources for legal services providers we have available, as they are often the first and last line of defense against deportation for immigrant communities,” said the attorney.

Defense against Trump

Redmond Haskins, from Legal Aid Society, agreed that the right New York immigrants have to legal counsel is a fundamental tool to fight deportation.

“Programs such as NYIFUP (New York Immigrant Family Unity Project) and others are fighting against the wave of deportations promoted by President Trump and are keeping families together,” said the activist. “We are ready to work with the City Council and other associates in the government to cultivate these services and guarantee that New Yorkers will have unrestricted access to an immigration attorney.”

“The Council continues to support the NYIFUP program and its municipal funding. [The program] has demonstrated that it successfully provides legal services for immigrants in civil immigration detention facing deportation,” said a spokesman for the City Council. (…)

Rosemary Boeglin, spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, (…) said: “Immigrant communities are being attacked by the White House, but in New York we defend our neighbors. Free immigration legal aid is helping keep families together.” (…) She added that the city provided legal help in 20,000 cases last year and that it has increased legal services seven times since the mayor took office.


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