On November 20th, Governor Andrew Cuomo stood at the pulpit of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and delivered a rousing address. Citing his own family’s immigrant past—a grandfather who’d come to the US with little more than an unshakeable belief in “the promise of America”—Cuomo vowed to protect New York’s immigrants from the administration of Donald Trump.

“If there is a move to deport immigrants, I say then start with me!” he declared. “If we are going to deport immigrants, then who is safe? And who is left? Because we are all immigrants,” the Governor concluded, a crowd-pleasing line that set off waves of applause in the audience.

As proof of the state’s commitment to protecting immigrants, Cuomo used the occasion to unveil a “public-private legal defense fund” to provide legal aid to any immigrant who might need it—regardless of their ability to pay. “In New York, we believe in justice for all,” he said.

The speech was lauded as a bold stand against the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump and set off more talk about a potential run for president in 2020.

But almost four months later, with Donald Trump moving to swiftly enact his agenda, the status of the Empire State Immigrant Defense Project, as it’s called on the Governor’s website, remains unclear.

The Governor talked about the initiative in his State of the State tour in January. At that time, the project was strongly endorsed by the New York Bar Association, and more warily backed by the New York Immigrant Coalition. “While we encourage and welcome involvement by all private and academic sector partners, we also note that a serious investment must be made in the immigration legal service provider field to make good on the Governor’s promise of providing all immigrants with legal counsel,” the organization stated in a January 10th press release.

Cuomo’s website touts the public-private project as the first of its kind in the nation. The plan, it states, will “ensure that all New Yorkers have access to representation and due process, regardless of their citizenship status.”

But we have yet to find any mention of the project in the Governor’s budget, and the Office for New Americans, tasked with implementing the program, doesn’t reference the program on its website. Cuomo's press office has not yet commented in response to our inquires. [UPDATE BELOW]

Advocates and immigration lawyers—who’ve seen their case-loads explode this year—tell Gothamist that they’re not really clear on what the program would look like or how it’s being rolled out. Some immigration advocates say they haven’t seen much proof that ensuring legal aid for immigrants is a priority for the Governor’s office.

“We appreciate the Governor’s public declaration that New York will protect immigrants, who are clearly in the crosshairs of the Trump administration,” Javier H. Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, told Gothamist. “At the same time, we strongly believe that such a protection will require substantial investment from the state, and that to raise expectations without resourcing real solutions is irresponsible.”

Anne Pilsbury, a lawyer with Central American Legal Assistance, said she’s heard very little about the plan since it was first announced. According to Pilsbury, it could, in theory, have a big impact, as immigration law is nightmarishly complicated and private immigration attorneys can charge thousands of dollars.

“There's lots of people that can't afford it,” Pilsbury says, pointing out that legal aid for immigrants is severely underfunded outside of New York City.

“There’s a desperate need for attorneys in the city for people facing deportations. Upstate, there’s an even greater need,” Pilsbury notes. “The city council has done a good deal—not enough, but still. The real need is outside of the city. Anywhere outside of the five boroughs there’s no publicly funded help for immigrants in the civil proceedings.” Because immigration proceedings are civil rather than criminal, the federal government is not legally bound to provide representation.

On Monday, immigration lawyers and legal advocates gathered in Foley Square to pressure the Governor and Mayor to fulfill their promise to protect immigrants by funding legal services. "It's a little over two weeks away now, and we need [Cuomo] to make good on his promise to give every immigrant a lawyer in New York State," an immigration advocate said.

Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell, tells Gothamist there are a few different options for the Governor to deliver on his promise to provide legal aid to all immigrants in the state. One is for the state to hire immigration attorneys—but that would be very expensive. Another is to have the state fund legal aid programs, and also use foundation money, a model that’s similar to New York City’s, Yale-Loehr says.

In the meantime, immigration lawyers are scrambling to help their panicked clients, who are hearing stories of emboldened ICE agents snatching people away even in places they thought they were safe.

Theodore Cox, a Manhattan immigration attorney whose clients mostly come from Asian countries, tells Gothamist his clients are “frantically nervous about everything.” They’re taking extra precautions, like staying in NYC if possible.

“Ever since the election, ICE and immigration it feels like ... they won the jackpot. They’ve been unleashed, and can do whatever they want to do,” Cox says. And this is in NYC, which is a sanctuary city, meaning the NYPD strictly limits its cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Meanwhile, in Albany, Democrats in the state assembly passed a bill that would make New York the first sanctuary state in early February. Republicans, and a handful of more conservative Democrats, opposed it, Politico reported. It seems unlikely to come to a vote in the Senate, where Democrats with the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference tend to side with the Republicans.

The Governor has yet to commit his support, saying that it needs review, New York State of politics reported. Donald Trump has threatened to punish sanctuary locales by withholding federal funding. That, and the conservatism of parts of upstate New York, might explain the Governor's hesitation.

While lawmakers debate, the people impacted by the federal crackdown on immigration need help now. Anne Pilsbury says her clients face immediate danger if they’re kicked out of the country.

“We've got children, adults with children, single adults,” Pilsbury says of the people they’re trying to help. “They’re all facing very serious violence in Central America.”

Update, March 16th: Governor's Cuomo's press office sent us this statement in response to our inquiries:


The Immigrant Defense Project was created to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to representation and due process, regardless of their citizenship status. A public/private partnership to be supported both by the state and private parties, the project will be administered by the State’s Office for New Americans in partnership with advocacy organizations, major colleges and universities, law firms and legal associations around the state. It will be launched in the near future. The Project, which was announced in January, builds on more than $6 million in services the State currently provides on an annual basis through the Office of New Americans, including helping more eligible New Yorkers become naturalized citizens. In addition to providing free assistance with immigration and naturalization issues, ONA Opportunity Centers provide legal services to immigrants related to Deferred Action for Childhood Entrants (DACA), free legal consultations and U and T Visa application assistance.

Editor's note: As cited at the top of this article, Cuomo first mentioned the public/private legal defense partnership in a speech in November.