More than a month after federal Immigration Court began holding a daily surge docket to speed deportations of undocumented Central American children, New York City Council and two charitable organizations have announced a $1.9 million program to fund lawyers for minors who would otherwise go unrepresented.
The initiative, announced at a news conference Tuesday, will allocate money to eight legal services providers that have been volunteering to help the children through their initial court hearings.
The providers, most of which have not been able to take on additional clients, will now be able to hire more attorneys and support staff to offer the children long-term representation.
The City Council is providing the largest chunk of funding—$1 million—from funds earmarked for legal services in the 2014-15 budget. The Robin Hood Foundation is providing $550,000, while the New York Community Trust will give $360,000.
Representatives from the legal services groups said the money is still not enough to ensure every child is represented, but called it a good first step in giving minors a fair chance at making their case to stay in the United States.
“This is a historic moment for New York City,” said Jojo Annobil, attorney-in-charge for the Immigration Unit at the Legal Aid Society, one of the grant recipients. “At the bottom of all this is the safety of these children.”
Only one in 10 children who represent themselves are successful in their claims for relief, he added, though the majority would qualify for legal remedies such as special immigrant juvenile status, asylum or special visas for victims of human trafficking. More than 4,200 unaccompanied minors apprehended at the Southern border have been sent to stay with family in New York since the start of the year.
The surge docket, which sees at least 30 children daily, was created in response to a federal mandate that unaccompanied minors appear before a judge within 21 days of Immigration and Customs Enforcement filing a deportation order. About 60 percent of the surge docket minors are unrepresented (NYLJ, Sept. 4).
In addition to the Legal Aid Society, agencies receiving funding are The Door, Catholic Charities Community Services, New York Law School’s Safe Passage Project, Make the Road New York, Central American Legal Assistance, Kids in Need of Defense, and Atlas: DIY. The exact amount each will receive has not been determined, although more will go to those with the greatest need, Annobil said.
Each group will use the money for different purposes. For example, Legal Aid and The Door will take cases for direct representation by staff attorneys and outside pro bono lawyers in private practice. Catholic Charities will add staff attorneys and law student interns.
The Safe Passage Project, which just hired another staff attorney, will use the added funding to train and provide advice to pro bono lawyers representing unaccompanied immigrant youth. The group has trained more than 800 since July, said director Lenni Benson, a professor at New York Law School.
“On one hand, we are building capacity within the legal community,” Benson said. “On the other, if the federal government ever does fund this work, there will already be tons of qualified lawyers who are able to do it.”
The added funding will allow Safe Passage to hire a social worker, she said.
At Tuesday’s press conference, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito praised her fellow council members for taking rapid action on a “humanitarian crisis.” The initiative builds on $4.9 million in city funding for the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, the nation’s first public defender system for detained immigrant adults.
“We cannot turn our backs on these children,” she said. “We cannot pretend they don’t exist.”
The initiative also will support ad hoc efforts by the providers to coordinate resources in helping children navigate the court system, said Eve Stotland, director of legal services at The Door.
“We should be proud but also know we have a lot of work ahead,” she said.
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