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New York City Council Passes Free Legal Counsel for Poor Immigrants Facing Deportation

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First Posted: Jun 30, 2014 03:26 PM EDT
New York City flag City Hall
The New York City flag flies over City Hall in New York on June 27, 2014. (Photo : Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

UPDATE - 7:30 p.m. EST: New York Assemblyman Francisco Moya, author of the state's DREAM Act, told Latin Post, "The New York City Council's decision to create the nation's first public defender system for immigrants facing deportation is a bold move for justice and I am proud to say that I was an early supporter of this initiative on the state level. One of my proudest accomplishments this year is that I was able to secure funds in the state budget for the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project."

"Facing a judge without counsel provides an unreasonable barrier to justice," Moya added. "If you wind up in immigration court and must defend yourself against trained attorneys, it's almost impossible to avoid deportation. Providing counsel for those facing deportation is about justice and family unity. No one should have to lose a family member to deportation just because they couldn't afford an attorney. I applaud the efforts of the New York City Council and look forward to taking up my bill to expand this program statewide again next year."

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New York City became the first jurisdiction in the United States to provide free legal counsel to detained undocumented immigrants facing deportation. New York City's Council passed the $4.9 billion program known as the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) after a "successful" yearlong trial.

The NYIFUP's funding from the City Council grants legal representation for nearly 1,380 detained immigrants in the city.

The program is also the result of a five-year study by the Center for Popular Democracy, the Immigrant Justice Clinic of Cardozo Law School, Make the Road New York and the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights (NMCIR). According to the Vera Institute of Justice, more than 7,000 U.S. citizen children in New York City lost a parent to deportation between 2005 and 2010. Sixty-seven percent of detained immigrants in the city continue their deportation hearings without legal counsel, and only 3 percent find success. Vera noted immigrants with legal representation are 10 times more likely to find a successful outcome in immigration court.

"In addition to the financial hardship caused by the loss of a primary breadwinner, these children have been shown to suffer significant emotional and psychological effects," said Vera, which administered the initial one-year-pilot program and sought to increase "court effectiveness and decrease detention times" and would save taxpayer dollars.

"In time, NYIFUP would become a model for other jurisdictions that value their immigrants and counterbalance overtly hostile immigration policies enacted in states like Arizona and Alabama," NMCIR stated.  "New York State has an opportunity to lead by making resources available to address a critically important unmet need and to keep New York families together."

NMCIR Executive Director Angela Fernandez acknowledged deportation proceedings do not require the government to provide lawyers since it is considered a "civil" matter rather than criminal.

"However, to the immigrants who are held in county jails, shackled and forced to litigate in one of our most complex arenas of law against trained government attorneys, the civil designation is cold comfort," Fernandez said.

"New York City's investment in the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project will not only help those who receive legal representation in decisions that will profoundly affect their lives, but it will also send a clear message that the city values and protects all families," Make the Road New York's Immigration Project's Cesar Palomeque said in a statement.

"The City Council should be congratulated for its leadership in ensuring that no detained New Yorker will be deported without an opportunity to show that she or he is entitled to remain in the country," Vera Director of the Center on Immigration and Justice Oren Root said.

Credit for the NYIFUP has been given to City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Councilmembers Carlos Menchaca, Julissa Ferreras and Daniel Dromm.

On a federal level, House Democrats have proposed the Vulnerable Immigrant Voice Act (VIVA) (H.R. 4936) legislation that would provide legal representation to unaccompanied minors and mentally disabled individuals during immigration proceedings. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), nearly 90,000 children will immigrate to the U.S. without an adult by the end of 2014.

"Currently, thousands of these children are stuck in a legal limbo as they seek a brighter future in the United States and most will not have legal representation," National Immigration Forum's Executive Director Ali Noorani told Latin Post.

The National Immigrant Justice Center's Executive Director Mary Meg McCarthy, Senate and House immigration reforms such as S. 744 and H.R. 15 provides legal representation to undocumented people for immigration court, but both bills have stalled in Congress.

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For the latest updates, follow Latin Post's Michael Oleaga on Twitter: @EditorMikeO or contact via email: m.oleaga@latinpost.com.

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