NY Daily News: Public defenders call on city to invest more money in legal representation for immigrants facing deportation

The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defenders and Bronx Defenders will ask during a budget hearing for $16.6 million for the next fiscal year -- an increase of $6.6 million. The money will provide attorneys for immigrants facing deportation at the Varick St. courthouse in Lower Manhattan. (iStock/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defenders and Bronx Defenders will ask during a budget hearing for $16.6 million for the next fiscal year -- an increase of $6.6 million. The money will provide attorneys for immigrants facing deportation at the Varick St. courthouse in Lower Manhattan. (iStock/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

By Stephen Rex Brown
March 19, 2019

A coalition of public defenders alarmed by government efforts to expedite deportation cases will ask the City Council Wednesday to invest more money providing legal representation to immigrants in custody.

The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defenders and Bronx Defenders will ask during a budget hearing for $16.6 million for the next fiscal year — an increase of $6.6 million. The money will provide attorneys for immigrants facing deportation at the Varick St. courthouse in lower Manhattan. The money is urgently needed, the defense attorneys say, because they have noticed signs as recently as Monday that the immigration courts are making major changes to address a case backlog that is the worst in the nation. Through February 2019, there were 110,262 immigration cases pending in the city, according to a tally by Syracuse University.

“We’re really looking at potentially mass deportations happening under our watch and we’re a sanctuary city,” said Jennifer Williams, an immigration attorney for Legal Aid.

In recent months the courts have expanded the use of video conferencing technology that allows ICE to not physically bring immigrants facing deportation before a judge. In December, attorneys in the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project complained that critical hearings scheduled for months away had been expedited without any notice, giving them little time to prepare arguments on why their clients shouldn’t be deported. On Monday, defense attorneys got a first look at seven new courtrooms dedicated to immigration cases.

"People will be deported away from their families, often to persecution or death, without knowing they may have had a strong defense,” the Immigrant Family Unity Project said in a statement, arguing why the additional funding is needed.

Unlike in criminal court, immigrants in deportation proceedings do not have the right to an attorney if they cannot afford one.

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which began providing attorneys for immigrants in custody in 2013, has been imitated across the country. The Vera Institute of Justice evaluated Family Unity Project in 2017 and found that 48% of immigrants succeeded in their cases, while unrepresented immigrants in the same court were successful only 4% of the time.

The Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which operates immigration courts, did not respond to a request for comment.