Report Denounces Uneven Legal Assistance for NY Immigrants

(Photo by Kenneth Lu, Creative Commons license)

Ever since the Trump administration pointed its guns against undocumented people, the state and city of New York have stood up as loyal advocates, disbursing money to help more immigrants have access to free lawyers and legal counseling. Still, the $65.2 million allocated for fiscal year 2018 have been insufficient, not all procedures have been carried out effectively, and many New Yorkers are being left out of these assistance programs.

A report entitled “NO SAFE HARBOR: Challenges in Obtaining Immigration Legal Services in New York State” – published on Thursday by the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), The Legal Aid Society and The Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative (I-ARC) – denounces this and points out that, in addition to a lack of resources to help more people, there are serious systemic problems preventing immigrant New Yorkers from protecting their legal rights.

The report states that, upon consulting organizations serving undocumented people, it is worrisome to find that the city of New York’s investment in legal services does not actually cover people who have committed serious crimes, leaving them to fend for themselves and denying them due process in an immigration court.

“While the amount of money invested by the city – $48 million – is historic, legal services providers who receive municipal funding are required to comply with a new and troublesome disposition that forbids them from helping clients who have been convicted of a list of 170 crimes, an exclusion that seriously limits the provider’s capabilities,” states the report.

On top of the $47.5 billion assigned by the city, the state added $16,388,100. However, activists have expressed concern about whether Albany is willing to renew the investment for fiscal year 2019.

The document highlights the fact that both the state and the city doubled their investments this year. In 2017, the City Council and the de Blasio administration assigned $27.2 billion, and Cuomo and Albany disbursed $7,138,100.

Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said that legal services providers are the first line of defense against Trump’s “brutal attacks,” and emphasized that the criminal justice system and the immigration system must remain separate. “Excluding [some people] is capitulating to the same attempts to criminalize immigrants merely for existing, and it threatens them with an unfair life sentence of deportation,” said the activist.

Sarah Gillman, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society, said that another issue limiting the access immigrants have to legal services is the red tape delaying the allocation of resources. As an example, the report reveals that 28 percent of the funds meant to offer free lawyers during fiscal year 2018 have not been released yet, and adds that the city needs more transparency regarding the way the money is being distributed.

“We need to review that to improve the service and the access immigrants have to legal assistance,” said the attorney, adding that the city has yet to reveal specifically how many immigrants and what type of cases have benefited from these programs.

The report also says that, at the state level, coverage for undocumented people is an even bigger cause of concern, as 79 percent of all funding is destined to paying for citizenship services. Of the 158 immigration-related legal services providers in New York state, 121 (75 percent) are in the Big Apple, while a number of areas in the north have very few or no providers.

Salvadoran-born Mirna Calderón, who was able to fight her political asylum case thanks to the legal assistance offered by the lawyers at Catholic Charities, said that she is an example of how vital these services are for undocumented people who do not know how to obtain immigration relief or avoid being scammed. “I had previously paid for a consultation with another attorney, who told me that nothing could be done with my case,” she said.

A spokesperson for Gov. Cuomo’s office said in a statement that the state leader’s record “clearly demonstrates his commitment to guarantee ample protections for all immigrants in New York.” (…)

The statement of the governor’s office also explains that the NYIC received a major grant from the 2018 state budget to provide legal services in currently underserved areas. “Unfortunately, due to administrative delays on the part of the organization, they still have not started to offer all the immigration services they are expected to provide. We encourage the NYIC to participate of the process in an appropriate manner, the way others have, to allow us to continue with this most important work,” he said.

The de Blasio administration, for its part, reiterated that it remains committed to further aiding immigrants, saying that proof of this is the $16.4 million added to the budget to pay for free lawyers to benefit an additional 15,000 cases.

“Any organization that has worked with the city as a contractor is aware that its contracting procedures are methodical in order to guarantee the smart deployment of public resources. As we have explained to our associates, the city is in fact speeding up the distribution of these dollars, given the immediate and immense need for legal assistance,” said a spokesperson for the mayor regarding the delays in the allocation of some resources.

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