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NYC: $4.9M public defender system for immigrants

June 26, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) — Poor New York City residents who have been detained in the immigration system and are facing deportation will now have legal representation after city lawmakers voted to fund a program that advocates say is the first of its kind in the U.S.

Lawmakers approved $4.9 million for the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project as part of the $75 billion budget passed Thursday covering the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The funding allows the initiative to cover all eligible immigrant city residents appearing in immigration courts in New York City or the New Jersey cities of Elizabeth and Newark.

While the criminal justice system has a guaranteed right to representation, that is not the case in civil proceedings like immigration cases.

Immigration law is incredibly complex, and it is difficult for immigrants to succeed in making a case for themselves if they don’t have an attorney, said Oren Root with the Vera Institute of Justice, which is coordinating and overseeing the project. He said data showed immigrants without attorneys won their cases about 3 percent of the time, while those with attorneys were much more likely to be successful.

“The thought that they can go up against trained government lawyers and have any chance to win their cases is just a pipe dream,” said Root, director of the institute’s Center on Immigration and Justice.

The $4.9 million is expected to cover at least 1,300 new clients, said Andrea Saenz of the Immigration Justice Clinic at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law. The attorneys come from public defender organizations that already work in the city.

Root said organizations in cities like Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco were looking into similar initiatives.

But ultimately, he said, the hope was that the federal government would start paying for counsel.

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