Following the arrival of more than 27,000 asylum seekers, many of whom have struggled to find attorneys in the midst of a historic backlog of cases in New York’s immigration courts, state officials, affected families, and immigrant advocates launched a renovated campaign to guarantee statewide legal representation in deportation proceedings.

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 number of asylum seekers who have arrived in New York City has surpassed 27,200 and currently, access to immigration attorneys is not guaranteed in immigration court proceedings in New York State.

In addition, Immigration courts across the state already face a historic backlog of more than 184,000 cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), while immigrants have been struggling with a dearth of attorneys in New York’s immigration courts for months.

Wednesday, in response to this situation, elected officials, affected families, and advocates relaunched a campaign to grant immigrants the right to an attorney through a statewide bill.

The Access to Representation Act (ARA) would give low-income immigrants facing deportation (and other legal proceedings related to deportation defense) or detention in New York guaranteed legal help in immigration proceedings.

Implementation of the bill, if passed, would be phased in over a six-year period. “New York State should invest $55 million in the coming Fiscal Year 2024 budget to begin implementing the ARA,” Shayna Kessler, the state advocacy manager for Vera Institute of Justice’s Advancing Universal Representation initiative, specified.

“This would ensure needed services for some of the people who are currently unrepresented and begin to build up the infrastructure required to ensure that there are properly trained legal teams in areas of need across the state,” Kessler added. 

Since 2020, state lawmakers have introduced similar bills, but none have passed. Now, with the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers, the situation is more urgent, advocates said.

“We have a moral obligation to make sure that new Americans have legal representation,” State Senator Brad Hoylman, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said during a press conference Wednesday. “Otherwise, the odds without a lawyer they’ll be sent back to their country of origin and could face dire circumstances, including death.”

According to advocates, more than 55,000 people in the state are estimated to be unrepresented as of October.

The bill’s sponsors, Hoylman and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, want New York to continue to be a national reference point in terms of legal representation since it was precisely in the city where the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYFUP) pilot began representing immigrants facing deportation in 2013. By 2017, the program was extended statewide, though it does not serve everyone at risk of deportation. The initiative has also been replicated across 21 states.

Over the years, the program has made clear how much of a difference it makes to have legal counsel in immigration court: Past studies of right-to-counsel programs have found that represented immigrants were four times more likely to win release from detention, over 10 times more likely to prove their right to remain in the United States, and 60 percent of them achieve a successful outcome on their case with representation, versus just 17 percent of those without a lawyer.

Kessler said that in the past, the priority was on making sure funding for NYIFUP and the other immigration legal services programs funded through the State’s Liberty Defense Project remained intact. After five years without receiving any budget increase, the state increased its immigration funding this year to $20 million.

“Those are powerful, successful programs that need to be supported, but they don’t go far enough,” Kessler said.

The proposed legislation would task the director of the state’s Office for New Americans (ONA) would several roles in overseeing the initiative, such as monitoring and improving legal services to ensure quality, submitting an annual report, and establishing an advisory committee of elected officials, governor appointees, legal providers, and others to advise and assist in administration.

“The law will also authorize investment in measures to increase the number of lawyers across the field,” Kessler explained. “Training and working conditions will be assessed to ensure that the work is sustainable, with appropriate caseloads, fair salaries, high-quality training, and supervisory structures to support success.”

State lawmakers will reconvene for the next legislative session in Albany beginning in January.