On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the office of an immigrant legal defense service in South Williamsburg was doing its best to keep up with demand. A boy played in the waiting room as his family sought legal aid to help them stay in the country, while 34-year-old Abraham, originally of Mexico City, waited and worried about alarming stories he'd heard about ICE agents cracking down on immigrants in the city.
“Yeah, worried about deportation … that they’ll come to my door. So many things in the news, everywhere they’re looking for people to deport,” Abraham, who declined to give has last name due to his vulnerable situation, said.
Abraham found it difficult to understand why authorities would go after people trying to make a living. “Maybe I understand for criminal people with a felony, but innocent people, people working for their families …“
Despite living in fear of ICE, Abraham is luckier than a lot of other people in the state: Because he lives in New York City, which has more resources, he was able to get help from the legal aid group. In other parts of the state there is a widely acknowledged shortage of qualified, accessible, affordable (or free) immigration attorneys. There are 850,000 unauthorized people living in New York state, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and it’s hard to overstate their desperate need for legal assistance.
“The idea that individuals foreign to this country could navigate that system independently is absurd," Sarah Pierce, Associate Policy Analyst for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), tells Gothamist. Yet, that’s exactly what happens. “A large portion of immigrants in removal proceedings are not represented by attorneys.”
That’s why, in November, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vowed to protect the state’s immigrants from the Trump administration—metaphorically offering to sacrifice himself before he’d let a single immigrant get deported—he was widely praised for standing up to the President.
“If there is a move to deport immigrants, I say then start with me!” he declared in the November 20th speech. To back his rhetoric, the Governor also introduced a “first of its kind public-private legal defense fund” to provide immigrants in the state with legal help, regardless of whether or not they’re documented or could pay.
The fund made another appearance in the Governor’s state of the state address, with Cuomo promising to “launch Empire State Immigrant Defense Fund to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to representation and due process, regardless of citizenship status.”
Immigration advocates hoped the Governor would invest substantial state funds into the initiative, but as Gothamist reported this month, there was no mention of the defense fund in the Governor’s budget, suggesting that a large public investment was not forthcoming.
On Friday, the administration finally unveiled the program, now called the Liberty Defense Fund. According to the press release, the initiative would spend “more than $1 Million” in “Public and Private investment” to “provide services to meet the urgent legal needs” of New York immigrants. In fact, the program is budgeted at $1 million and the money comes from two private foundations, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford Foundation.
The Fund will work with some 182 “advocacy organizations and legal entities,” according to the announcement “to provide pro bono legal and additional resources for immigrants threatened by recent changes in immigration policies.”
At present, there will be no large public funds directed exclusively towards the program—the “public-private” set-up refers to the fact that the foundation money will be administered by the state’s Office for New Americans. (A Cuomo administration spokesperson confirmed that “It’s all private funds administered by the state. There are no taxpayer dollars being used at this time.”)
Estimates from advocates and immigration experts vary on how much it would take to really cover the legal costs of immigrants facing deportation, but tend to exceed $1 million dollars—and private foundation money is not guaranteed to last. The New York Immigrant Coalition, which has officially partnered with the Governor’s office, said the state needed to invest at least $15 million to meet demand. Make the Road New York estimates that $19.1 million is needed to supply immigrants with adequate legal services.
As Crain’s pointed out, public investment in immigrant defense is hardly unprecedented, with Los Angeles County allocating $3 million dollars in public funds to a public-private partnership, and the state of California considering a $12 million investment in an immigrant fund.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” says Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration professor at Cornell, of Albany’s plan. “It’s a good first step, but we have a long way to go towards legal representation at all immigrant proceedings.” Yale-Loehr says there are worthwhile elements in the program, like a “know-your-rights” campaign that would send volunteer lawyers around the state. But advocates hoped for more.
The New York Immigration Coalition, listed as an official partner of the Liberty Defense Fund, issued a scathing critique of the lack of public funds in a press release, noting, "There looks like there’s not a single public dollar that goes to legal defense, which stands in sharp contrast to other states that are leading the way against the anti-immigrant onslaught from the federal government. It’s simply not enough to rally private law-firms and foundation support: this project will not succeed without significant public investment.”
Steve Choi, executive director of NYIC, tells Gothamist that the group will continue to work with the Governor to implement the program and make sure it succeeds: "We will also continue to fight hard for a major public investment."