With the kickoff of the New York legislative session weeks away, immigrant rights advocates are calling on state lawmakers to guarantee the right to a lawyer for low-income migrants facing deportation or detention.

More than 50 elected officials and advocates rallied outside City Hall on Wednesday in support of the Access to Representation Act (S81B/A1961), which would make New York the first state to enshrine the right to counsel for immigration proceedings, and comes with a $300 million price tag over six years.

This push comes as New York City officials and advocates scramble to accommodate more than 27,000 newly arrived asylum-seekers, many of whom have struggled to navigate a complex legal system many immigrants and their advocates say is falling apart.

The influx of new migrants – many bused here by Texas elected officials – highlights the need for a more robust legal support system, said state Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz of Queens, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

The need for universal representation is higher than ever.
state Sen. Brad Hoylman of Manhattan

“I don’t think people understood the need until they were faced literally at our New York doorstep with an immigrant crisis,” she said.

Cruz added: “Now when we see it literally smack in our face, folks are going to, I think, be a little bit more receptive to actually wanting to help us pass this.”

“The need for universal representation is higher than ever,” said state Sen. Brad Hoylman of Manhattan, the other bill co-sponsor and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He added that 46,700 asylum-seekers were in New York as of Sunday, and only 37% of their asylum cases have been successful.

Hundreds of immigrants line up before dawn outside the city’s main immigration courthouse – some warming themselves over steam grates or swaddling themselves in cardboard boxes for warmth – for mandatory check-ins with immigration officers, only to be turned away after the 500-person quota is met.

Meanwhile, immigration court documents are routinely being sent to the wrong addresses – including more than 1,500 to Catholic Charities – even after local advocates have lodged complaints with the Department of Homeland Security and Biden administration to halt the practice. And already-booked pro bono lawyers are being flooded with requests from new arrivals they can’t meet.

“Regardless of how immigrants arrive in New York, they need help navigating a complicated system that has the product of political bureaucracy and that is quite simply set up to make them fail,” said Camille Mackler, founder and executive director of the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative, adding that more than 100 organizations have signed on to support the bill.

Noncitizens with attorneys are more likely to be released from detention, appear in immigration court, and win their deportation cases, according to a 2016 American Immigration Council report.

The report analyzed more than a million cases with a federal database from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the U.S. Department of Justice division that runs immigration courts. Among detainees, represented immigrants were twice as likely to fend off deportation. For those who had never been detained, that disparity rose to five times.