‘There is currently no right to public defense in immigration proceedings, but having a lawyer to navigate this notoriously complicated system advances the cause of justice.

Adi Talwar

The line outside 26 Federal Plaza one morning in 2015. The building is one of two locations in the city where immigration hearings are held.

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The record backlog of cases in New York immigration courts and across the nation is more than just a bureaucratic problem: people’s lives are at stake. As federal immigration enforcement and detention continue in the aftermath of the Trump-era, thousands of New Yorkers are still facing permanent family separation and the threat of deportation without the help of a lawyer.

Processing Issues in Immigration Courts Upending New Yorkers’ Cases, Lawyers Say

There is currently no right to public defense in immigration proceedings, but having a lawyer to navigate this notoriously complicated system advances the cause of justice. People in detention with legal representation are up to 10 times more likely to establish their right to remain in the United States compared to those languishing in the system without an attorney. Indeed, for people in detention, only two percent win their cases without a lawyer. For people who were not detained, 60 percent have a successful outcome with an attorney compared with just 17 present for those who are unrepresented. 

Yet today, New York legal service providers face crushing caseloads and are stretched too thin to meet the needs of everyone who is facing deportation. Fortunately, there is a  solution for this problem. The New York State Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul can address this crisis in the current legislative session by increasing funding for immigration legal and social services in the state budget to $24.4 million. Passage of our Access to Representation Act (S81/A1961) would also guarantee that all New Yorkers facing deportation have a lawyer moving forward. In the context of the state budget, this program’s cost is a drop in the ocean, but for so many families, it is an absolute lifeline. To put this in perspective, annual funding for legal services would be fully covered in 10 days with revenue generated by mobile sports betting alone.  

The need for immigration legal services has become even more acute during the coronavirus pandemic. Since the emergence of COVID-19, over 400,000 additional individuals have been detained, even as public health experts have expressed concern that the cramped and unsanitary conditions in detention facilities pose extreme risks to people forced to live there, the employees who work in these locations, as well as the surrounding communities.

Fair funding in this year’s state budget will enable legal representatives in every corner of the state to continue working on existing cases, while allowing additional providers to serve 1,000 New Yorkers who need legal assistance as they navigate a byzantine system while seeking protection against detention, deportation, and family separation. In addition to organizations providing legal services, our plan also provides support for social services critical to ensuring long-term stability and assistance for trusted community-based organizations that are well positioned to handle outreach, offer “know your rights” trainings, and provide community education. In many ways, this investment will create a stabilizing force for communities.

After years of attacks from aggressively anti-immigrant federal policies layered on top of a disruptive global pandemic, we can’t let court backlogs stand in the way of justice. One in three children in New York is the child of an immigrant parent, immigrants own 316,000 businesses in our state and make up more than one quarter of our workforce. Immigrants are the backbone of our economy and so many of our communities—they deserve a fair shot in court. 

In this legislative session, Albany must take action to equip New Yorkers with more legal resources and the right to representation. This is a generational moment for our state to seize a national leadership role and reimagine justice for immigrant communities by strengthening legal services funding. With this investment, we are promoting family unity, community stability, and an equitable recovery for all of New York.

Catalina Cruz is an assembly member representing Queens’ district 39. Brad Hoylman is a state senator representing district 27 in Manhattan.