An injection of private cash is behind a compromise this week that will fund legal representation for all indigent immigrant New Yorkers at risk of deportation regardless of their criminal history, according to City Hall. Announced Monday, the anonymous $250,000 grant works around Mayor Bill de Blasio's insistence that tax payer dollars should not be directed towards immigrants with any of 170 convictions deemed "serious or violent."
Speaking on New York 1 Monday night, Mayor de Blasio described the anonymous grant source as a "foundation." He did not disclose the source; nor did City Hall.
The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, established in 2013, has historically provided legal counsel to all immigrants in detention who cannot afford a lawyer, regardless of their criminal history. The program fills a legal loophole, as the US Constitution does not guarantee legal representation in immigration court.
Since the mayor announced his $85 billion budget this spring, he's sparred with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and a broad coalition of public defenders and immigration advocates who have insisted that carveouts for certain defendants would undermine the first-of-its-kind program and limit due process.
According to public defenders, immigrants with convictions on the list of 170—including burglary and drug possession in the first and second degree as well as rape, murder and arson—have particularly complex options for relief in immigration court, and don't stand a chance without representation.
"Working together, the Mayor and the City Council have agreed that city funds will continue this critical service by aiding in the defense of anyone not convicted of the 170 crimes deemed serious or violent by city law," said City Hall spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein and Speaker spokeswoman Robin Levine in a joint statement Tuesday. "In addition, we have secured private funding to ensure even those who are ineligible for city funded lawyers will have critical legal representation."
The City Council committed $10 million to NYIFUP this year—an increase over years past—in the midst of the City Hall stalemate. Mark-Viverito made an eleventh-hour budget tweak in June, adding language that eligibility for any immigrant defense funding "shall be based solely on income." That language has been rescinded, according to City Hall and the City Council. The $10 million from the City Council will go towards NYIFUP clients without convictions on the list of 170.
NYIFUP launched as a City Council pilot program, with $500,000 in funding. That funding has increased annually, totaling $6.23 million in FY 2017.
NYIFUP picked up 325 clients between December 2016 and May 10th of this year, according to data supplied by City Hall. Of these defendants, 63, or 19 percent, had convictions on the list of 170.
"We are grateful for Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the City Council's unwavering advocacy," stated Adriene Holder, Attorney-In-Charge of the Civil Practice at The Legal Aid Society, a major critic of Mayor de Blasio's carveout proposal.
A 2011 New York Immigrant Representation study found that 67 percent of immigrants in detention faced judges without legal representation before NYIFUP. Of those defendants, only 3 percent won their cases. Legal representation increases defendants' chances of avoiding deportation tenfold, the group found.
Public-private partnerships funding legal defense are not unprecedented. Crain's recently reported that similar funds exist in Los Angeles and Chicago. Governor Andrew Cuomo also announced a public-private legal defense fund this spring, but was criticized when it became clear that the funding was entirely private, with public administration.