At about 1:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Maximino Leyva Ortiz, wearing an orange jumpsuit, his wrists shackled, stood before a judge in an immigration courtroom in Lower Manhattan, a lawyer at his side. The federal government was seeking to deport him.
He took an oath, lawyers’ identities were confirmed, and then Mr. Leyva told the judge he would not fight the order; he was prepared to be deported.
“You’re doing so voluntarily, sir?” Judge Brigitte Laforest asked.
Within minutes the hearing was over and Mr. Leyva was being led out of the courtroom by a bailiff; he was on his way back to Mexico.
The proceedings were quick and subdued. But the banality of the scene belied its significance. Mr. Leyva was the first client in a new program that seeks to provide public defenders for all poor immigrants residing in New York who have been detained and are facing deportation. The initiative is the first of its kind in the country.
Unlike in the nation’s criminal court system, defendants in immigration court have no constitutional right to a court-appointed lawyer. Fear and ignorance conspire with language barriers and poverty to keep detainees from securing legal counsel.
The new initiative, called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, emerged from several years of study and lobbying among immigration lawyers and immigrants’ advocates. They were concerned that the absence of competent legal representation for many of New York’s immigrant detainees was resulting in unnecessary deportations that ruptured families and put an undue financial burden on government.
Last summer, the New York City Council allocated $500,000 to help pay for a pilot program to test the viability of the initiative. The project’s organizers said that money, plus a supplementary contribution from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, would allow them to provide representation to 190 immigrants.
“At its core, it’s a justice issue,” said Peter L. Markowitz, a professor at Cardozo who helped lead the initiative. “Most excitingly, it’s a chance to mark a sea change in the treatment of immigrants in this country.”
The organizations behind the project are the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic at Cardozo Law School, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, the Vera Institute of Justice and Make the Road New York. They are ultimately seeking to provide representation for all indigent immigrants living in New York who have been detained and are facing deportation in immigration courts in New York City; Batavia, N.Y.; Newark; and Elizabeth, N.J. — an annual population of about 2,450.
Full funding would cost about $7.4 million per year, proponents said. But in a report to be released on Thursday, the advocates argue that by shortening detentions and reducing deportations, the full-blown program would save governments and private employers an estimated $5.9 million a year.
Though the pilot project opened on Wednesday with a deportation, Mr. Markowitz, who watched the proceedings from the gallery of the small, windowless courtroom, said the benefits of the program were immediately evident. Mr. Leyva had no legal relief from deportation, Mr. Markowitz explained, and to prolong his case would have meant postponing the inevitable, at great cost to the government and to Mr. Leyva.
“He didn’t spend needless time in detention,” Mr. Markowitz said.
By the end of the afternoon, 10 detainees had faced the court accompanied by lawyers from Bronx Defenders and Brooklyn Defender Services, which are providing legal counsel for detainees in the pilot program.
The efficiency of the hearings involving public defenders stood in sharp contrast to the first case on the docket. The detainee, Lewis Spencer Taveras-Mejia, was not included in the pilot project because his family had retained a lawyer for him.
But the lawyer failed to show up for the hearing.
“They told me that they hired a lawyer and that she would be here today,” Mr. Taveras-Mejia told the judge. He said he had never met the lawyer or learned her name, and then he began to cry. The judge decided to schedule a new hearing for Nov. 19.
“That’s 13 days of detention that the taxpayers have to pay for and that he’s unnecessarily spending in jail,” Mr. Markowitz said. He tapped on his phone, calculating the extra detention cost: $2,067.
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