New York Times
By Liz Robbins
May 31, 2017
City Council members and immigrant activists cheered in April when they saw the $16.4 million in legal services that Mayor Bill de Blasio budgeted for defending poor immigrants facing deportation. But then they saw the asterisk.
The mayor said that the services would be denied to immigrants who had been convicted of certain crimes over the past five years, the 170 serious crimes for which the city requires law enforcement officials to turn over those detained to immigration enforcement agents. Was he prioritizing or discriminating?
Weeks away from the deadline for the city budget, the City Council and the mayor are haggling over that point. On Wednesday, 27 of the 51 Council members signed a letter to be delivered electronically to Mr. de Blasio, urging him to provide legal help without restrictions. That is the public defender model currently used by the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, a model studied nationally that since 2013 has provided services primarily for indigent immigrants who have been detained.
“We want to step away from rhetoric that one person is more deserving than another in representation,” City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who represents Brooklyn and is the lead signatory, said in an interview on Monday.
In the letter, provided to The New York Times, the council members questioned the mayor’s commitment to maintaining the free, unfettered Family Unity model, let alone fund it.
“We are concerned that the exclusion you propose will not only undermine our city’s commitment to due process for all but will also perpetuate the failures and racial disparities that pervade our criminal justice system,” the letter said.
“Ultimately, the immigration courts, not New York City, will decide who can stay and who must leave, but we can and should ensure that all of them are afforded their fair day in court.”
In immigration courts, unlike criminal courts, people are not entitled to a lawyer. That was the impetus for the Family Unity initiative, which started with a $500,000 pilot project in 2013 and this year had $6.5 million of support from the City Council. According to Peter L. Markowitz, the director of the Immigrant Justice Center at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and one of the leaders of the initiative, the program has helped 2,348 detained immigrants.
But the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs contends that under its evolving model, it could help a wider range of immigrants facing deportation, as many as 15,000.
“The idea here is to be realistic and try to have a proposal for how we prioritize city dollars, especially since more and more people are being arrested with no criminal histories,” said Nisha Agarwal, the commissioner of Immigrant Affairs. She added, “We would choose to not prioritize those folks who we have, in other cases in city policies, determined to be a public safety risk.”
Mr. de Blasio’s proposed restrictions would have excluded 19 percent of the clients served this year, Mr. Markowitz said. One of those would probably have been Cristal Morris.
Ms. Morris, 30, a mother of five from Jamaica, served a six-month sentence for a first-time federal felony, for possessing drugs as she came into the country in 2014. She said she regretted her actions.
Ms. Morris, who came here when she was 16, got a green card as a victim of domestic abuse by a United States citizen spouse, her lawyer said. She had given birth to twins a month before serving her criminal sentence at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Upon release, she was taken directly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and faced deportation. Her lawyer from the Brooklyn Defender Services, Leena Khandwala, secured a bond hearing for Ms. Morris, who was released from immigration detention two weeks ago; her children’s welfare and her not being a flight risk factored into her release.
“Without her, I don’t know where I would be,” Ms. Morris said about Ms. Khandwala. Ms. Morris’s children range in age from 1 to 9. “It’s a big relief. It means I get to be home with my babies.”
Having a lawyer in such cases is critical, Ms. Khandwala said. If a client is detained, there is very little time and opportunity to work with a lawyer before seeing an immigration judge. Cases are usually closed in four to five months. If a client has been released, a case can extend for two to three years.
The issue is not whether Ms. Morris should be represented, but whether someone like Ms. Morris should have a lawyer underwritten by taxpayer dollars, said Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law.
Mr. Chisti suggested that the mayor’s position might have been influenced by the Trump administration’s hard line on immigration. “He concluded that business as usual between the federal government and the local jurisdictions could not be defended,” Mr. Chisti said. “And that he had to show some change as an accommodation to the new political reality.”
Mr. Chisti added: “It’s perfectly valid for the mayor to make choices based on certain criteria. The caution that I would register is that they not be hard-and-fast rules because in the life of immigrants, there are too many extenuating circumstances.”
According to Mr. Markowitz, using information from the three legal services providers — Brooklyn Defenders, Bronx Defenders and the Legal Aid Society — the success rate for an immigrant with a lawyer was 32 percent, as defined by getting a removal order canceled or terminated altogether, or deferred. It was only 3 percent without a lawyer.
“I don’t think we dispute the idea that immigration lawyers are needed in court,” Ms. Agarwal said.
Not using city money for those convicted of serious crimes would free up resources for other immigrants, she said, including those who are not detained and did not commit a crime, those applying for asylum or those who came as unaccompanied minors.
“The scope of the need,” she added, “is gigantic compared to frankly what the city can do right now.”
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com