Mayor Bill de Blasio is facing stiff resistance from City Council members and immigrant advocates who are opposed to how the mayor would like to set up a fund intended to protect the city’s immigrants in deportation proceedings, with the deadline for a budget deal inching closer.
The conflict between the mayor and Council began in April, after de Blasio announced the city’s executive budget would include $16.4 million to help give undocumented immigrants in deportation proceedings access to a free lawyer.
The announcement was initially hailed by legal aid providers, who for years have helped undocumented immigrants, legal permanent residents and asylum seekers navigate the immigration legal system through the city’s New York Immigrant Family Unity Project.
But things quickly soured after de Blasio clarified that the money in his proposal could only be used for people who were not accused of committing certain crimes, specifically any offense listed among the 170 crimes which the city has deemed “deportable offenses” that would require law enforcement to turn over offenders to federal immigration authorities.
The distinction caused consternation among advocates, who felt the mayor was creating conditions that would affect people who might not have been convicted of a crime and in desperate need of legal guidance.
As the city’s municipal budget negotiations draw to a close, sources have confirmed officials are still negotiating over the legal funding for undocumented New Yorkers. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has made immigration reforms a priority during her time in office, has said she believes the funding should be available to anyone who needs it — regardless of whether they are suspected of committing a crime. She has signaled she is unwilling to compromise on how the money should be spent.
Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who chairs the Council’s immigration committee, sent a letter to de Blasio earlier this week asking him to provide the legal funding without attaching any conditions, warning him that creating exemptions for certain alleged offenders would only perpetuate inequalities already faced by people of color moving through the court system.
“We especially want to reiterate the concerns of our communities to the Administration’s indications that City-funded services would not be available to immigrants convicted of certain crimes,” the letter reads. “Such policies are detrimental to the well-being of our communities and create and compound more injustice on individuals who are already at a disadvantage simply because of their immigration status.”
The letter, which was obtained by POLITICO New York, was signed by 27 members of the Council.
As part of the building pressure on de Blasio to eliminate funding conditions, Make the Road New York, one of the city’s leading immigrant advocacy organizations, released its budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year, with funding for NYIFUP “without any limitation to legal representation based on criminal history” at the top of its list.
Javier Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, said the budget could provide an opportunity for de Blasio to stand up to the federal government, and specifically to President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda.
“This year’s budget offers a key opportunity for New York City to continue leading the way for immigrant communities,” Valdés said. “With new attacks from Washington each week, our city must stand firm and redouble its efforts to protect and expand opportunities for immigrant communities.”
Lawyers from the Legal Aid Society, one of the public defender groups pushing for the funding, have urged de Blasio to allocate the money without delineating any exemptions. The lawyers, who are part of the group that supplies counsel for the NYIFUP, have argued the mayor’s proposal cuts against immigrants’ due process rights.
The NYIFUP was launched in 2013 with the help of a $500,000 grant from the City Council. The program is modeled after the public defender system, which provides lawyers to anyone accused of a crime. That constitutional right, however, is not granted to undocumented immigrants whose cases are typically handled in civil, not criminal, court and who often do not have access to free counseling to help navigate immigration proceedings.
“They’re expected to go into court, opposite a government lawyer with all the complexities of immigration law to actually then defend themselves,” Adriene Holder, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Practice told POLITICO New York. “NYIFUP was created as a pilot to actually be able to provide those detained immigrants, immigrants who have lost their liberty and are facing removal, to allow them to meet up with a lawyer and be represented.”
Since its launch, the City Council estimates the program has provided representation to more than 2,000 people. According to data provided by the Council, research has shown that immigrants in detention are up to 10 times more likely to obtain some form of legal relief if they have a lawyer representing them in court.
That was the case for an NYIFUP client who could only be identified by his initials, A.B.
According to legal providers, A.B. had been living in the United States since he was nine years old. He was later arrested in New York City and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement based on a past conviction. Once an NYIFUP lawyer picked up the case, she realized A.B. had automatically derived U.S. citizenship as a child when his father became naturalized.
The lawyer worked with the family to obtain documents and submitted a motion to terminate his removal case. A.B was released from ICE detention after three months and reunited with his family. Two months later, the immigration judge granted the motion and terminated the deportation case after agreeing A.B was a legal citizen.
Legal Aid lawyers said A.B.’s case outlines a classic example of the type of client the NYIFUP could help.
“What the city now has concluded is that anyone with a conviction on this list should be required to face a deportation judge for immigration proceedings alone,” Holder said. “Immigration law we know is extremely complicated, it just seems kind of incredibly unfair that what was agreed upon by the mayor and the City Council years ago and is working very effectively is now in jeopardy and he’s thinking about depriving people of an attorney.”
The Council had initially requested $12 million for legal services, asking the administration to baseline the $6.5 million that the Council had put in last year’s budget plus an additional $5.5 million.
For now, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has maintained its position, saying the increasing need for lawyers in light of recent federal government actions pertaining to immigration policy have forced the city to reevaluate and prioritize how the allocations are funded. Officials have also said the mayor’s office has yet to determine what organization will receive the funding to provide the legal services.
Testifying before the City Council last month, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Nisha Agarwal said the city was aware of the increasing need for resources for undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers and legal permanent residents. Agarwal said certain cases would need to be prioritized, with the city only capable of doing so much financially.
“As we are thinking about how to implement the program, we are obviously learning from the path-breaking leadership of the Council and the speaker and being able to develop great programs and want to learn from those, but also set sort of priorities of how to use limited dollars in ways that are consistent with the city’s values and policies,” Agarwal said.
Administration officials have also pointed to de Blasio’s overall funding commitment towards immigrant services, which total $31 million in baselined funding this year. The administration estimates the city will be able to provide legal representation to nearly 15,000 New Yorkers in the upcoming fiscal year.
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