Not two weeks after President Donald Trump was elected on a platform that included an aggressive crackdown on undocumented immigrants, Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised to fight for the state’s foreign-born in a speech at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
“If there is a move to deport immigrants, then I say, start with me,” he told the Sunday crowd, also announcing plans for a public-private legal defense fund “to ensure that every person has legal protections, whether they can afford it or not.”
But his Liberty Defense Project, announced with little fanfare in a late Friday afternoon press release last week, will fall far short of that mandate, according to advocacy groups and elected officials. The $1 million fund will be funded by foundations, not the state, although Cuomo’s press release touted “More than $1 Million in Public and Private Investment.”
“It’s simply not enough to rally private law firms and foundation support,” Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said in a statement. “This project will not succeed without significant public investment.”
Make the Road New York, an advocacy organization based in the city, estimates that at least $19.1 million is needed to provide comprehensive immigration legal services statewide.
The governor’s announcement hailed the Liberty Defense Project as “the nation’s first public-private immigrant legal defense initiative,” but that is not the case. Los Angeles has formed a $10 million public-private defense fund that includes $3 million of county money; Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel invested $1 million of city money in such a fund in December. California lawmakers have proposed a statewide fund there that would include $12 million of state funding.
Elected officials who support expanding immigrant legal defense worried the Cuomo’s program will project a false sense that Albany had addressed that need. “Something isn’t always better than nothing. In launching this program, it creates the impression that legal services for immigrants is an open-and shut case, derailing other efforts that could direct more funding,” Assembly Democrats Francisco Moya, Victor Pichardo, Luis Sepulveda, Carmen De La Rosa, Robert Rodriguez, Yuh-Line Niou and Ron Kim said in a joint statement.
Cuomo’s office, which answered questions about the program on background, cited legal issues with using public dollars for it. The administration did not blame Senate Republicans for the absence of taxpayer funding to defend undocumented immigrants, although it would be difficult to win their approval, given that they have consistently blocked tuition support for academic stars from that population.
The program will rely on pro-bono legal services from private firms. New York Law School professor Lenni Benson, who trains lawyers to take on immigration cases pro bono through the Safe Passage Project, noted that such work requires immense supervision and guidance from attorneys who specialize in immigration law.
“This is a great idea so long as it incorporates mentoring from experienced attorneys and that needs to be supported by the office because everyone is at capacity and nobody has extra capacity to mentor people,” Benson said of the project.
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