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Finally, Immigrants in New York City Will Have Public Defenders

Last month New York City lawmakers approved $4.9 million to fund a public defender system for poor immigrants.

As the president and Congress remain in a stalemate over immigration reform, thousands of immigrants are currently embroiled in the complicated maze of immigration law and deportation proceedings. Critics have labeled President Obama as soft on immigration, yet there have been more deportations under his administration than in the years before his first term. It is expected that by the end of this year, his administration will have deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors.

The majority of the deportations have been what is labeled as “removals” in immigration law parlance. Removals are ordered by a judge and most often occur due to criminal activity. The rest of the nearly 2 million estimated deportations that have occurred since 2009 fall into the category of “returns,” which include those caught trying to cross illegally at the border, as well as those already in the country and returned to their home country for various reasons. However, those labeled as ‘returned’ do have legal options to pursue to return to the United States.

The confusing labels, laws and options become even more complicated for those that generally do not have a good grasp of the English language. For those that can afford an immigration attorney, their success at fighting deportation and remaining in the country legally increases dramatically. However, most immigrants cannot afford an attorney and there is no legal right to a public defender when they are arrested on immigration violations. Nearly 71 percent of defendants that appear in immigration proceedings do not have an attorney present.

New York City seeks to change that.

Last month lawmakers approved $4.9 million to fund a public defender system for poor immigrants. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project is based in New York City and is being labeled as the first network of its kind. Attorneys from public defender organizations in the city will represent all immigrant families that qualify, as well as those in Elizabeth and Newark, both in New Jersey.

The expansion is part of a pilot program which started last year with 190 cases. While many are still pending, 10 cases have thus far resulted in the people being allowed to remain legally in the United States. The Vera Institute of Justice is overseeing the project. The New York City organization is a nonpartisan, nonprofit center for justice and policy practice, with offices in various parts of the country. They are dedicated to fairness for everyone in the justice system, especially for the most vulnerable.

“The thought that they can go up against trained government lawyers and have any chance to win their cases is just a pipe dream,” said Oren Root, director of the institute’s Center on Immigration and Justice.

It’s not just about keeping immigrants in the country. For those that are in violation, an attorney can expedite the process, preventing them from being held in detention for long periods of time. An attorney can also help with details regarding children who may be remaining behind. They can deal with the process with less fear and more dignity.

It also makes good financial sense for the government.

The study conducted by NERA Economic Consulting showed that providing a public defender network for immigration cases would pay for itself by reducing costs for enforcement, detainment and removal. It is estimated that such a nationwide system would cost the Federal government approximately $208 million a year. It’s not just the quantifiable costs that make the program effective. The intangibles like accuracy and improvement of proceedings added with the reductions of uncertainty for immigrant families make it sound policy.

This is what the Vera Institute of Justice would like to see happen.

They hope to expand the New York City program, which expects to cover 1,300 new cases, to other cities around the country. Other organizations in cities ranging from Los Angeles to Boston are looking into creating similar systems. However, as Oren Root points out, this cannot be solved in a piecemeal fashion.

“Ultimately this cannot be solved nationwide jurisdiction by jurisdiction,” he said.