Low-income immigrants in New York who face deportation or detention would be guaranteed legal help under legislation proposed by two state lawmakers.

The Access to Representation Act (S81B/A1961) would make New York the first state to establish a right to counsel for those enmeshed in immigration proceedings, and comes with a price tag of $300 million, according to a fiscal note attached to the measure.

The bill's sponsors are state Sen. Brad Hoylman of Manhattan and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz of Queens, both Democrats. Immigration advocates have long pushed for a right to legal representation in these civil federal proceedings. The initiative comes as the governors of Texas and more recently Florida have sent thousands of asylum seekers to Northern cities.

Hoylman decried the “shameless actions of border state governors” in a statement announcing the bill. Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, which supports the bill, called out Texas for “cruel games with the lives of asylum seekers.”

“New York must have the infrastructure in place to support asylum seekers as they arrive in our state,” Cruz added in the statement.

New York must have the infrastructure in place to support asylum seekers as they arrive in our state.
State Assemblymember Catalina Cruz

The bill, in which similar versions were introduced in previous years, would see New York enter a space the federal courts have long treated as the domain of the federal government. It would require the state to establish a dedicated fund for the new policy — and clarifies that the state money is intended to supplement rather than replace existing funding from other government or private sources.

It applies to state residents and others with a “significant nexus” to New York, such as those who are in immigration detention; have court cases in the state; or face deportation, an immigration-related arrest, or detention.

The director of the state's Office for New Americans (ONA) would be in charge of determining the income criteria, though eligible immigrants must have at minimum a yearly household income less than 200% of the federal poverty guidelines.

The ONA director would also be tasked with monitoring and improving legal services to ensure “high-quality” and “zealous” representation. An advisory committee of elected officials, governor appointees, legal providers, and others would assist.

The Assembly bill memo cites a 2016 American Immigration Council report that noncitizens with attorneys were more likely to be released from detention, appear in immigration court, and win their deportation cases.

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. 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.