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Projects, Units & Initiatives

Immigration Law Unit – Removal Defense

For decades, The Legal Aid Society has been a recognized leader in providing comprehensive, high-quality immigration assistance to low-income immigrant New Yorkers. Our Immigration Law Unit represents immigrants before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), before immigration judges in removal proceedings, on appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and in federal court on habeas corpus petitions and petitions for review. In particular, the need for non-detained removal defense has grown in recent years, leading LAS to increase our focus on advocacy for clients who are at risk of deportation.

LAS has traditionally been one of few organizations in New York City that represents individuals in immigration proceedings based on prior criminal convictions. Accordingly, the bulk of ILU’s removal defense work involves clients with criminal convictions. Many of these clients are long-time lawful permanent residents who entered the United States at a young age and now face the threat of deportation because of old and/or minor criminal convictions or prior immigration violations. In collaboration with LAS’s Criminal Appeals Bureau, ILU assists clients with filing motions in criminal court to vacate or modify convictions or reduce criminal sentences. This collaboration allows clients to file motions to terminate their removal proceedings or to apply for relief from removal, a common feature in our removal defense representation. ILU also assists criminal defendants and their criminal defense attorneys to fashion favorable pleas that avoid deportation or allow clients to apply for discretionary relief from deportation.

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) is the nation’s first universal representation program for detained immigrants facing deportation. Through NYIFUP, The Legal Aid Society and our partners in this initiative, Brooklyn Defender Services and The Bronx Defenders, provide high quality, comprehensive representation to New Yorkers in immigration detention who are unable to afford an attorney. We represent individuals on the detained docket at the Varick Street courthouse, as well as on the non-detained docket at 26 Federal Plaza as we successfully advocate for our clients to be released from detention.

Launched with the support of the New York City Council in 2013, NYIFUP was created after studies showed that detained immigrants in New York rarely secured counsel, with the result that unrepresented individuals lost their deportation cases 97% of the time. Without representation, immigrants are more likely to be wrongfully deported in spite of having strong claims to remain in the United States. The New York City Council funded NYIFUP to bridge this service gap and ensure that every immigrant in detention had the opportunity to fight their case and stay together with their families. By the end of the first full year of NYIFUP, more than 95% of non-citizens whose cases began on the detained docket were represented, the majority of which were represented by NYIFUP attorneys. The success of NYIFUP has since resulted in the creation of similar right-to-counsel models across the country.

Our Impact

In one recent case, LAS represented Thomas, a citizen of Morocco who entered the U.S. as a legal permanent resident (LPR) twenty years ago. In 2004, he was arrested and convicted of a misdemeanor assault. Five years later, he was again arrested for not paying his fare on the subway and pled guilty to theft of services. Thomas has worked continuously as a chef since coming to the U.S., and he has also recently married his longtime girlfriend, a U.S. citizen with two disabled children whom Thomas helps to care for.

In 2013, upon returning from a trip abroad to Morocco to visit his mother, Thomas was put in proceedings to be removed from the United States. He appeared alone on his case many times before he was referred to The Legal Aid Society in late 2017. Upon investigation, it became clear that the government had failed to meet their burden to prove that Thomas was removable from the United States. In an effort to substantiate their case, the government submitted evidence that was insufficient to prove their charges; however, Thomas would not have been able to determine this on his own, without an immigration attorney. LAS filed a motion to terminate proceedings on his behalf, which was granted in December 2018. Now, Thomas can continue to build his life with his new wife and children, travel to Morocco to see his ailing mother and is eligible to apply for citizenship.

As one example of LAS’s achievements under NYIFUP, we recently represented David, who came to the United States from the Ivory Coast when he was three years old. He is now married to a U.S. citizen and his mother is also a U.S. citizen. David was arrested in February 2018 immediately following an appearance in criminal court for an incident with which he was being charged on the basis of his denied application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). After David was detained, removal proceedings were commenced against him, alleging that he was removable from the U.S. under the Immigration and Nationality Act as an alien present in the U.S. without being admitted or paroled.

LAS stepped in to help David challenge his deportation case by filing a motion to terminate proceedings. During his case, David learned about the his father’s political involvement in their home country and the circumstances surrounding his death. His father had been a spy against the political party currently in power, giving them reason to seek revenge against David if he were to return to the Ivory Coast. Based on this new finding, LAS deemed David eligible for asylum, withholding of removal, and withholding under the convention against torture (CAT).

David’s case was prolonged due to detention staff impeding his appearance at multiple criminal court dates, and both the Immigration Judge and the Department of Homeland Security attempted to use his open and pending charges against him to prove he was a danger to society. To put an end to his protracted, unmerited detention, LAS filed a habeas petition on David’s behalf. After an arduous fight, David was released from detention and granted cancellation of removal, allowing him to remain in the U.S. with his family.

*All client names and certain other personally identifying details have been altered to protect clients’ confidentiality.