New York City is now the first jurisdiction in the country with a public defender system dedicated solely to providing free legal council to every poor, detained immigrant facing deportation. On Thursday morning, New York’s City Council approved a $4.9 million budget for a program called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, following the success of a year-long trial run. That money will cover representation for approximately 1,380 detained immigrants facing deportation in the next year.
The Family Unity Project was born from the results of a five-year study by the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, the Center for Popular Democracy, Make the Road New York, and the Immigrant Justice Clinic of Cardozo Law School. The study discovered 67 percent of detained immigrants in New York go through immigration hearings without the help of a lawyer, because they can’t afford one, and of those that represent themselves only three percent do so successfully. According to the study, those same immigrants are 10 times more likely to prevail in immigration court with legal representation.
The U.S. Constitution requires that immigrants, just like regular citizens, have legal representation in criminal cases. But deportation proceedings are considered a civil matter, not a criminal one, and the same right to counsel does not apply.
“Immigrants can be locked up in exactly the same facilities, they come into the court shackled, have to face trained lawyers, and the stakes are really high,” said Peter Moskowitz, a professor at Cardozo School of Law’s Immigrant Justice Clinic who helped facilitate the study and create the Family Unity Project. “They’re looking at being exiled from their homes and their families, but as far as the current interpretation of the constitution goes, they are not afforded the same right to counsel.”
Angela Fernandez is the executive director Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights. She emphasizes that the indigent detainees who will benefit from this program are not all undocumented. There are plenty of documented, green card-holding, legal permanent residents who find themselves detained and put through deportation proceedings.
“We know that the U.S. has been deporting people who had a right to stay in this country but couldn’t exercise that right because immigration laws are so complex and they couldn’t afford an attorney,” Fernandez said. She said she has already received calls from immigrant rights groups in Los Angeles and Arizona interested in replicating NYC’s program at the municipal level in lieu of action from the federal government on immigration reform.
“This is a radical departure from what is happening around the country. New York City is actually complying with a value system that is very American,” Fernandez said. “We’re not going to have any New York City families be railroaded into deportation simply because they can’t afford it.”