A Compromise Leads to Equitable, Sensible Divorce Reforms

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Kate Wurmfeld

Yesterday the New York State Senate, in a unanimous vote, joined the Assembly in approving a bill that represents a landmark in the reform of New York State’s domestic relations law. A.7645/S.5678, a compromise to a bill introduced in the last session, sets forth new guidelines for how temporary and post-divorce maintenance and spousal support awards are calculated.

The bill balances the sometimes conflicting concerns of low-income New Yorkers, including victims of domestic violence, with those of families of higher income. This was achieved largely because of the process by which it was drafted.

In an attempt to arrive at a compromise on maintenance guidelines, Justice Jeffrey Sunshine, chair of the NYS Unified Court System’s Matrimonial Practice Advisory and Rules Committee, informally brought together lawyers from different interest groups, including the Family Law Section of the New York State Bar Association, the New York State Maintenance Standards Coalition (including attorneys from NYLAG), the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, and the New York Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Over a period of several months, the group was able to work through their differences and arrive at a reasonable and fair compromise that resulted in A.7645/S.5678.

The legislation builds on earlier successful matrimonial law reforms in the State introduced in 2010: the passage of no-fault divorce; the introduction of a provision strengthening attorney’s fees for the non-moneyed spouse; and the adoption of formulas for calculating temporary maintenance awards.

Temporary maintenance standards have been especially welcome for low-income New Yorkers seeking a divorce. (Last year alone NYLAG received 1,178 calls about divorces.) The standards protect economically vulnerable spouses, allow litigants and lawyers to anticipate eventual court-ordered awards and thus settle cases without lengthy litigation, and assist those unable to pay for representation in obtaining needed financial awards.

Victims of domestic violence in particular have benefited from temporary maintenance rules, which have dramatically shorted the time it takes to receive a temporary award from as much as six months to just a few weeks. The law also enables parties to predict (as has long been the case with child support) how much temporary maintenance will be paid or received. For victims of domestic violence this predictability means the difference between staying with an abusive spouse and having the courage – and the means, to leave.

By expanding standards to post-divorce maintenance awards, A.7645/S.5678 will further streamline the divorce process and ease the burden on our judicial system, leading to more consistent awards, an increase in settlements and reduced litigation. Moderate- and low-income spouses who cannot afford an attorney will be able to use a simple formula to calculate legitimate claims for maintenance. The less-moneyed spouse who sacrificed her earning potential to support the more-moneyed spouse’s career, raise children, or care for elderly relatives will be compensated for the contributions she made to the wellbeing of her family.

On behalf of our clients and in the interest of matrimonial reform for all, I want to thank Judge Sunshine, the sponsors of the bill, Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein and Senator John J. Bonacic, along with Senator Ruth Hassel-Thompson, for their leadership and support. We urge Governor Cuomo to sign this bill when it arrives on his desk later this month. It will finally provide the consistency and predictability desperately needed in determining economic awards for vulnerable spouses in divorce proceedings, and more efficiently resolve matrimonial actions for families in New York State.

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SSI Restoration Act Will Strengthen Benefits for Poor and Disabled Americans

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Michelle Spadafore_This week, U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) reintroduced a long overdue bill to strengthen and modernize Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits that are critical to the wellbeing of elderly, disabled, and blind Americans, including 1.3 million children.

As Senator Warren said when she introduced the bill last year, “SSI is a critical program that helps millions of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens keep their heads above water.” I’m very pleased to join Senator Brown to introduce the SSI Restoration Act, which will help strengthen SSI for families who rely on these essential benefits.”

The Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act (HR 2442/S 1387) would fix key elements of the SSI program that currently make life difficult for millions of low-income disabled and elderly individuals. Most of the SSI eligibility rules have not been updated since 1972 – when Richard Nixon was in the White House. After decades unchanged, the program is woefully out of step with the economic realities faced by the vulnerable Americans it was created to protect. For example, a beneficiary is only allowed to receive a maximum of $20 from other sources (such as a pension) without having their benefits reduced. The cost of living today is more than 5.5 times what it was in 1972, when you could buy a loaf of bread for 25 cents and a gallon of gas for 52 cents. The SSI Restoration Act would permit individuals to receive up to $112 monthly without a corresponding loss in benefits.

The bill will also increase the amount of money recipients can save for emergencies such as medical bills, and home and car repairs from the current cap of $2,000 to $10,000 ($15,000 for couples).  Often an illness or other unexpected expense can cause an individual to be temporarily unable to pay bills, leading to a slight excess in accumulated benefits. Currently, if their bank account goes over $2,000 on the first of the month – even by $1 – disabled and elderly recipients lose their only means of support.

The SSI benefit rate for an individual living alone is $820, which is rarely sufficient to pay for even a studio apartment in New York City. Often an elderly individual’s adult child will assist him or her in meeting rental responsibilities each month by paying $100 or $200 directly to the landlord. Under the current program, the monthly benefit is reduced whenever someone receives food or housing for less than fair market value from another person, including family members. The reintroduced bill eliminates this harsh provision.

According to a 2013 Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper, 48 percent of the elderly population in the United States (roughly 19.9 million people) is “economically vulnerable,” defined as having an income that is less than two times the supplemental poverty threshold (SPT). SPT is a poverty measure that the Census Bureau has adopted in recent years that takes a more comprehensive look at what it actually costs to live than the traditional federal poverty line.

This number will only continue to climb as the massive population of baby boomers enters their “golden years” with limited savings and assets to support them through retirement.

My colleagues and I who staff NYLAG’s Disability Advocacy Project see the overwhelming challenges faced by the poor and disabled individuals we serve every day. The Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act is by no means a cure-all, but it will provide some long overdue relief for millions of Americans, and deliver on a promise we made them 40 years ago.

What can you do to help? You can email U.S. Senator of New York Charles Schumer or contact him by phone to let him know that you support the bill, and encourage him to co-sponsor the legislation.

Where can you find more information? Justice in Aging (formerly the National Senior Citizens Law Center), which supports the legislation, has posted an excellent overview and additional materials to their website.

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Why Your Credit Score Matters

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Doug Ostrov Blog CardA credit score is an often overlooked but vitally important indicator of financial health. Much like getting an annual medical check-up, monitoring your credit score regularly means you can catch and deal with problems early on.

Personal finance guru Suze Orman urges her readers to earn a “gold star” by getting their credit scores above 720. As she explains in her “Ridiculously Easy Financial To-Do List:”

“Your credit score affects the interest rates you’re offered on credit cards and loans, can be used to vet your job application, and in some states may influence your insurance premiums. So your credit reports, which determine your FICO score, need to be up-to-date and correct (mistakes abound). A score of at least 720 (the range is 300 to 850) earns you a gold star.”

She is right. Credit scores determine the interest rates and premiums you pay, including the interest you will pay on car loans, home loans, and student loans. And, yes, nearly half of all employers in the U.S. check the credit histories of job applicants, and use the information to make hiring decisions. This practice is both unfair and an illegitimate predictor of job performance.

Luckily, however, in New York City employment credit checks are about to become far less common. Yesterday Mayor de Blasio signed a bill to restrict the use of credit scores as a basis for hiring. While the bill exempts a number of professions, such as police officers, national security professionals and those bonded by the city or state, it is still the strictest such law in the nation.

This is a positive development for our city. NYLAG’s Consumer Protection Project submitted testimony before the City Council Civil Rights Committee strongly supporting the bill. Job-related credit screenings often target minorities, students and immigrants, who have been long victimized by predatory and deceitful lending practices that lead to mounting debt and poor credit. The use of credits checks prevents people who are willing to work hard from getting the jobs they need to get back on their feet and avoid further debt.

NYLAG’s Financial Counseling Division was launched in 2009 in response to the global financial crisis to help clients navigate through short term financial crises and plan for long term financial stability. This often includes helping them understand the importance of their credit scores and reports, and how to fix mistakes, prevent and recover from fraud and identity theft, and establish or improve damaged credit. The economic recession, which impacted people from every rung of the economic ladder, illuminated the fact that most people could benefit from  improved access to financial literacy resources and professional financial guidance to help them better manage their financial lives. Even as the economy improves, the need continues. Last year NYLAG was able to expand services to help empower students and low-income New Yorkers to manage their student loan debt and finances through outreach at community based organizations and CUNY colleges across the city.

Protecting Yourself From Consumer Banking FraudIn partnership with the Muriel F. Siebert Foundation, NYLAG launched Learn Money, a financial literacy website that provides people with the basic tools of personal finance. The site provides a starting point for people looking for information about managing their money, controlling spending, investing for the future, protecting assets, and maintaining good credit.

Our clients have told us countless stories of how damaged credit has affected their lives – often over relatively small amounts of money. According to a recent report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, more than half (52%) of accounts in collection are medical bills. The median amount unpaid on medical collections $207 and average is $579. The bottom line is: always get proof of every bill you pay – medical bills especially. Otherwise a small unpaid bill (that you think you paid but was perhaps never processed, or was processed incorrectly by a medical billing office) can end up haunting you and your credit score.

Starting over after a major financial crisis can seem like an insurmountable task. But it can be done. You can work to eventually correct a mistake, rebuild your score, and stabilize your credit. It just takes time. And at the very least – if the new employment credit checks bill does what it purports to do – New Yorkers won’t have to worry quite as much about paying for those mistakes for years to come when it comes to applying for a job.

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Why Executive Action Isn’t About Immigrants, It’s About All of Us

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David MullinsOn April 17, a court of appeals heard oral arguments about whether to stay a federal judge’s temporary injunction halting President Obama’s immigration Executive Action, which is set to grant temporary protection from deportation to an estimated 5 million immigrants.

While we wait for the court’s decision, I wanted to share one legal argument that highlights the disconnect between those who subscribe to, or have an interest in perpetuating, the myth of the job-stealing, criminal immigrant and the experience of tens of millions of Americans who interact with immigrants every day and see the value they bring to their communities.

Earlier this month mayors and other officials from 73 cities in 27 states and the District of Columbia filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief arguing that the injunction is invalid because delaying the implementation of Executive Action is “strongly contrary to the public interest” – something a judge is legally obligated to take into account when considering an injunction.  (In an earlier blog describing NYLAG’s continuing work to support immigrants during this waiting period, my colleague Irina Matiychenko, Director of NYLAG’s Immigrant Protection Unit, referred to it and praised Mayor de Blasio for leading the effort.)

The mayors’ amicus brief makes a strong case that Executive Action will make us a safer and more prosperous nation that values and protects the rights of families. It insists that the injunction should be reversed because the court failed to consider the negative impact it is having on the 43 million people residing in the communities represented by the signatories. Here is an excerpt from the brief that goes to the heart of the matter:

“Local officials witness every day the contributions that immigrants make to their neighborhoods and communities, as well as the harms that result from keeping long-time residents of those neighborhoods and communities in the shadows due to their immigration status… So, the mayors, county officials, cities, counties, villages, and boroughs represented in this brief have a distinctive, on-the-ground perspective and understanding of how [Executive Action] will affect eligible individuals, their families, and, indeed, all residents within [our] jurisdictions.”

Administrative Relief, Immigration ReliefThe argument challenges the court for looking narrowly at how Executive Action could harm the interests of just one plaintiff state, Texas, because of the presumed high cost of processing immigrant’s drivers’ licenses – and in so doing, failing to consider the impact that an injunction would have on public interests of the rest of the nation.

The harm done by delaying the implementation of Executive Action is spelled out in chilling detail. First, there is the matter of public safety. The brief cites a survey of Latino immigrants who said they are less likely to contact police officers if they have been the victim of a crime because they fear that police officers will use this interaction as an opportunity to inquire into their immigration status or that of people they know. This is not surprising given the unprecedented 2009 congressional  directive that mandates an immigrant detention quota, which has driven increasingly aggressive law enforcement against immigrants. Immigrants are understandably afraid to report crimes.

We see this fear every day among our clients. Even victims of domestic violence who are at risk of imminent physical harm are so afraid of deportation that they do not report the abuse.  The President’s plan will help to restore trust that quota-driven enforcement and record deportations has eroded. Immigrants who are granted temporary relief from deportation will be far more likely to cooperate with law enforcement.

Second, the injunction stands in the way of the significant economic benefits Executive Action will bring by granting more undocumented immigrants authorization to work. The brief references several cities, including New York, that have enjoyed an economic boost thanks to growth in immigrant populations – and have created and funded local programs, such as job training, to support immigrants and enhance their ability to contribute to their communities. Our own Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs is a notable example.

One 2012 report cited in the brief, by the Partnership for a New American Economy, estimated that immigrants “started nearly 30 percent of all new businesses in the country in 2011, and that immigrant-owned businesses employ one out of ten workers in the United States, generating more than $775 billion in revenue, $125 billion in payroll, and $100,000 billion in income in 2010 alone.”

Executive action is expected to increase labor income among immigrants, resulting in billions of dollars of new tax revenue that will help local economies grow. We know from studies of an earlier executive action program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, established in 2012) that “within two years almost 60 percent of beneficiaries obtained a new job, and 45 percent increased their salaries.”

Finally, the federal injunction has put on hold the promise of keeping immigrant families together. This is despite the fact that family unity is guaranteed under immigration laws, and is recognized by the Constitution, which “protects the sanctity of the family precisely because it is deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.”

Communities and immigrants are hurt when families are torn apart through deportation. It creates a drain on local governments, including reduced household income, increased reliance on public benefits, and poor health leading to greater burdens on the health care system.

The toll on children who grow up with one parent is profound. They are more likely to remain in the cycle of poverty, enter the foster care system at a vastly higher rate, experience housing instability, food insufficiency, disrupted educations, and suffer from trouble eating and sleeping, depression, and anxiety. Studies show that “children’s health is impaired even by the threat that a close family member will be detained or deported.”

If you have the time, I highly recommend reading the amicus brief in its entirety. It makes an eloquent and convincing case that the battle over Executive Action is not about immigrants – it’s about all of us.

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Student Loan Victims Pay the Price of DOE Inaction

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Eileen Conor Blog CardA version of this blog post was published by Huffington Post.

On March 31, the Department of Education met with a group of student loan borrowers at a meeting hosted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These borrowers, organized by a group known as the Debt Collective, borrowed substantial amounts of federal and private student loans in order to attend schools operated by the now-infamous Corinthian College.

In a deal that purported to disclaim any successor liability for Corinthian’s student-directed misdeeds, the Department infused the school with cash to prevent a sudden shut down of operations, allowed for ongoing student enrollment, and brokered the sale of many Corinthian Campuses to ECMC, a collector of student loans. This bailout and controlled unwinding of Corinthian is unusual, but its effect is not unprecedented in one key respect. The Department has evidenced no intention to go back over its books and relieve debt obligations that never should have been issued, had Corinthian played by the rules.

This, at least, is familiar. There once was a for-profit chain of beauty and trade schools that operated under the umbrella of Wilfred American Educational Corporation. At its peak, it ran 60 campuses in 15 states, drawing tens of millions of dollars in federal student aid. After multiple investigations and two criminal prosecutions of Wilfred’s owners for financial aid fraud, the school declared bankruptcy and closed, in the mid-1990s. The Department concluded that the school regularly falsified the eligibility of students for financial aid. This means that in theory, many of those loans are subject to discharge under federal law. Of course, most of those who attended a Wilfred school — often immigrant women without a high school education — have no way of knowing, unless the Department tells them, that they may be eligible for discharge. Yet nearly 20 years after reaching the conclusion that Wilfred falsified loans, the Department is still actively enforcing at least 60,000 of these loans, often by means of involuntary collection such as wage garnishment and tax refund offset.

SchoolThrough outreach, the legal organization where I practice, the New York Legal Assistance Group, has been able to apply for loan discharges on behalf of some 70 former Wilfred students. To date, we have succeeded in getting upwards of $800,000 of debt discharged and money returned to these borrowers. (Over decades, the initial principal on these debts has ballooned from an average of $5,000 to well over $40,000 in some cases, including interest and fees applied by the Department). But the Department vigorously opposed our request that it send a notice to every borrower who attended this fraudulent institution, and temporarily suspend collection. Instead of taking this fundamentally fair step, the Department has devoted extensive time and resources in litigation to establish that it has unfettered discretion to make the “policy assessment” that no action is warranted. In short, the Department’s position is that it owes borrowers nothing but a debt collection notice, not even information that they desperately need, and surely deserve, to protect their rights.

The lack of information and transparency about key options for debt relief is a recurring problem. Today, the Debt Collective presented the Department with paperwork from hundreds of Corinthian borrowers, who are asserting that the school’s misrepresentations and other illegal acts render their loans unenforceable. They are invoking a provision of the Higher Education Act, also incorporated into borrowers’ loan paperwork, known as “borrower defense to repayment.” The spirit and plain text of this provision clearly offers a path to debt relief when a school relies on deceptive and predatory tactics to induce students to enroll and borrow student loans. The provision incorporates consumer protection law, which varies by state. But the Department has offered no formal guidance about how to assert this defense. There is not even a form, which is why I consulted with the Debt Collective in their efforts to create a template for Corinthian borrowers. Separately, and to better advise clients, I have submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department about their policies concerning defense to repayment, and have received no response to date — even though the Department’s response is now months overdue.

I have also submitted defense to repayment applications on behalf of two NYLAG clients, who attended a for-profit school that the New York State Attorney General found had wildly inflated and falsified the job placement rates that it promoted to students. The Attorney General’s case against the school settled and the school paid some restitution to borrowers, but the Department has nonetheless continued to seek to collect from my clients on tens of thousands of dollars in federal student loans. This week, we received a response to one of my client’s requests from a division of the Department, which indicated no knowledge whatsoever of the defense to repayment provisions.

If legal remedies for borrowers, such as defense to repayment, exist only on paper, they are not worth very much. Meeting with Corinthian borrowers is the first step in the Department’s necessary recognition that it needs to be more proactive and protective when it comes to student borrowers, both on the back end and the front end of administering federal student aid. This of course means vigorous enforcement to prevent another situation like Corinthian. But it also requires, at a minimum, formulating transparent and accessible policies and procedures to effectuate borrower relief provisions like defense to repayment. And when there is ample evidence that borrowers are entitled to relief under the law, as here, it is incumbent upon the Department to do more.

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Seriously Ill and Homeless in New York: A Problem We Need to Solve

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Randye RetkinMayor de Blasio has made affordable housing the cornerstone issue of his administration. This includes strategies to address the alarming rise in homelessness, which according to the Coalition for the Homeless, has reached its highest levels since the Great Depression.

In the Mayor’s recent State of the City address he pledged to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. His sweeping “Housing New York” plan spells out steps to help working families, domestic violence victims, seniors and those with mental health and substance abuse issues avoid homelessness altogether, or transition more quickly out of the city’s shelter system and into permanent housing.

These are laudable goals, but there is one homeless population that is falling through the cracks: chronically or acutely ill people who do not need to be in the hospital but cannot receive or access the medical care they require within the shelter system. It’s time New York did more to make sure these highly vulnerable individuals get the attention they deserve.

I am part of Collaborative Housing and Health (CHH), a working group of medical and legal professionals who are exploring ways to address the pressing needs of homeless patients in New York City. Our group includes attorneys from NYLAG and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, clinicians, researchers and managers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Montefiore Medical Center, and a representative from the Susan G. Komen New York City Affiliate.

CHH is part of a national movement among health professionals to build awareness for the grim reality that housing and other Social Determinants of Health  including employment status, income, education, and access to food, can dramatically impact a person’s health and her use of medical services and resources.

“The availability of medical care alone is not enough to achieve optimal health for acute or chronically ill people who are homeless or living in substandard housing,” said Dr. Francesca Gany, Chief of the Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities Service, Memorial Sloan Kettering. “Our own studies have shown, for instance, that unstable or overcrowded housing conditions were a significant predictor of missed cancer treatment appointments.”

Medical Respite Programs Make Sense.

Seriously Ill and Homeless in NYTo combat this problem, cities across the country have established medical respite programs designed to address the unique needs of homeless patients struggling with cancer, diabetes, or other debilitating conditions who require ongoing treatment, medical equipment such as an oxygen tank, or access to a kitchen to accommodate dietary restrictions.

These services have improved lives and lowered costs to the health care system at a time when hospitals are under mounting pressure to reduce or shorten costly hospital stays. Patients who would otherwise have been forced to remain hospitalized receive medical care, medications, and nutritious meals, as well as assistance in accessing outside medical services such as chemotherapy and radiation. Patients no longer need to make repeated trips to the Emergency Room, often returning sicker each time as their health deteriorates.

One size does not fit all.

We will need a range of respite services to meet the needs of a city of 8.4 million and a homeless population of over 60,000. Some patients require a medical respite program with on-site medical staff, but others may simply need a shelter with accommodations to address their health issues.  (A number of such programs can be found on the website of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.)  Here are two examples:

  • In New York City, Communilife provides safe, transitional housing for people with cancer and other non-chemically dependent patients who are medically cleared and do not require hospitalization, but cannot be discharged because they are homeless. Communilife receives referrals from two hospital systems in the Bronx: Montefiore Medical Center and Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center. The program aims to reduce the hospitals’ financial burden by providing temporary residential care that enables patients to be discharged to a safe environment where they can access medical care and other supportive services.  The program also helps patients transition to permanent housing while continuing to receive medical care.  While Communilife does incredible work, they have only ten beds and cannot begin to meet the overwhelming need.
  • In New Haven, Columbus House, a homeless shelter, is piloting a respite program designed to lower state Medicaid costs related to unnecessary hospitalizations for the homeless. Referrals come directly from Yale New Haven Medical Hospital and participants are linked immediately to visiting nurse services. The 12-bed program includes 24-hour supervision, referrals to health care providers, transportation and case management services.

Break the Cycle.

Beyond improved health outcomes, medical respite services can also break the cycle of homelessness. While patients are protected and secure, case managers can help to identify appropriate long term housing options. Through medical-legal partnerships, clinicians can refer patients to an attorney, who can help to secure public housing, and public benefits such as Social Security and food stamps, stabilizing patients’ economic situations and further optimizing their health and wellbeing.

In the months ahead our CHH members plan to meet regularly as we develop more concrete recommendations for how New York City can best address the unique health care and housing needs of this population. We are still in the research and planning phase, but have every hope that New York will embrace the medical respite model as we attack the housing crisis in our midst, and fulfill the mayor’s vision of a city where everyone has a safe and decent home.

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Setting the Record Straight on SIJS

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Lindsey KaleyKim Susser

Recent inquiries into a possible scheme to deceive judges in Queens Family Court in order to fraudulently secure legal status for young immigrants has garnered much media attention. Fraud is not acceptable in the immigration process or otherwise, and if fraud has occurred, every effort must be made to uncover it.

Unfortunately, the news reports have called into question the efficacy of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a
form of immigration relief that has for decades protected immigrant children at risk. The reports incorrectly suggest that SIJS does not give judges the ability to fully evaluate cases and hold litigants to the same high standards of proof as other immigration laws. We disagree.

SIJS was created – with broad bipartisan support – in 1990 in response to the plight of unaccompanied minors in the US who were unable to reunite with their families, were eligible for foster care, and for whom the state determined it was not in their best interest to return to their home country.

In 1997, the Act was amended to clarify that SIJS was available as a remedy for children who had been abused, neglected, or abandoned, thereby codifying what was always the original purpose of the Act. In 2008, the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act expanded SIJS to include children who: are under 21 years of age; have been placed in the custody of a guardian or are eligible for foster care; were abused, abandoned, neglected (or other similar basis under state law) by one parent or both; and can demonstrate that it is not in their best interest to be returned to their home country. Only after the Family Court has established that a juvenile has been abused, abandoned or neglected, is the case sent to immigration officials for review.

A Rigorous Legal Framework

Jurisdiction over child protective cases falls within the purview of the States, which historically have been the most appropriate venue to adjudicate family law matters. In the case of unaccompanied immigrant children seeking SIJS, the law requires that they apply with a custodian or guardian, often a relative and the only support the child has.

Family Courts have safeguards in place to investigate and act if there are suspicions that immigration laws have been abused:

  • Family Court judges can, as in any case, evaluate the credibility of the parties and witnesses who appear before them. They are permitted to question witnesses and the evidence presented to them. If a judge determines that any party is not credible, she can ask for additional evidence, deny the petition for guardianship or not make the factual findings requested.
  • Family Courts have the authority to order either the Probation Department or Child Protective Services to investigate the home and caretaking arrangements of any individual who comes before the Court as a proposed guardian. These agencies often conduct home visits and interview the children, the proposed guardian, and other adults in the home. Fingerprints are also required in all guardianship proceedings in Family Court.

Putting the Safety of Children First

NYLAG and other organizations that represent children in both Family and Immigration Court see every day the impact that SIJS relief has on the lives of vulnerable young people, even more so since the influx of children fleeing violence in Central America that began last summer. Here is just one of story, based on an actual client we were able to successfully assist through the SJIS process:

  • Jose, a fifteen-year-old Ecuadorian, attended a NYLAG community-based clinic for unaccompanied children in 2014. His father abandoned him when he was born, and his mother died when he was a baby. Jose was raised by his aunt in town so rife with gang violence that it was dangerous just to go to school. When he was 11 years old, a gang came to his house and killed his uncle in front of him. Terrified that they would return because he had witnessed the murder, Jose fled to the U.S. He was detained by the U.S. border patrol and then sent to New York to live with another aunt. She takes excellent care of him and loves him like a son. Jose is particularly close to her son, his cousin. Jose has enrolled in school and goes to a psychologist regularly to cope with his trauma—neither of which he could do if he were returned to Ecuador. Determining that Jose was likely eligible for SIJS, his NYLAG attorney applied for the prerequisite Special Findings Order and guardianship in a hearing before a Family Court judge. The judge was skeptical because he believed that Jose could be returned to another guardian in Ecuador, and questioned whether the Family Court in New York had jurisdiction in the case. NYLAG presented a written memo and argued that there was precedent for the court to exercise jurisdiction. After a comprehensive hearing, the judge granted both guardianship and the Special Findings Order to Jose’s aunt, permitting NYLAG to proceed with the application for SIJS in Immigration Court.

There is no question that Family Courts in New York State have long been overburdened. But Congress provided for a Family Court judge to make the factual determinations necessary for SIJS eligibility because they are in the best position to do so.

We strongly believe that additional funding be provided to Family Courts to allow for more judges, translators, court staff, and training, and we hope the necessary funding is forthcoming. In the interim, Family Courts in New York and throughout the country must put the children like Jose first, and continue adjudicating SIJS cases.

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Putting Dreams on Hold

Irina Matiychenko Blog Card

NYLAG joins immigrant rights organizations around the country in our opposition to Texas District Court Judge Andrew Hanen’s temporary injunction halting the rollout of President Obama’s program, designed to ease the threat of deportation for deserving immigrants, and focus instead on removing those immigrants who pose a real threat to national security. We firmly believe, along with most experts, that the Administration’s action is on solid legal ground and the ruling will not stand.

The President’s plan is currently the only solution to the decades-long legislative deadlock in Congress over immigration reform. It does not provide a pathway to full legal status, but those who qualify will receive work authorization and other benefits. Parents and children will have a respite from the constant threat of separation, and hardworking immigrants will be able to find legal employment for a fair wage.

The administrative action permits undocumented immigrants who have lived in the US for five years and are the parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents to request deferred action and employment authorization through a new Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program.

The plan also expands Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy introduced in 2012 that provides temporary relief to immigrants who were brought to the US as young children. The Judge’s order does not affect those eligible for original DACA, or DACA renewals.

Immigrants receive legal services at a February 18, 2015 clinic hosted in partnership with the Consulate General of Mexico in New York City.

Immigrants receive legal services at a February 18, 2015 clinic hosted in partnership with the Consulate General of Mexico in New York City.

Since the injunction was announced on February 17th, NYLAG’s immigration attorneys have not shifted our priorities or changed direction. In fact it is more important than ever to make sure that immigrants affected by the ruling do not lose heart, and know that they have our support. We continue to meet one-on-one with clients and to conduct screenings and consultations in partnership with community-based organizations, elected officials and City agencies. Our priority is to ensure that clients are informed consumers who know their rights.

NYLAG, with the invaluable support of pro bono attorneys and other volunteers, is assessing all potential avenues for status relief. We make sure that those who do qualify for DACA or DAPA prepare in advance for the filing process by collecting the necessary documentation, and remind them that they are still free, if eligible, to apply under the original DACA provision. Finally, we warn them to be wary of unethical and fraudulent immigration legal services providers and to seek legal advice only from licensed attorneys or BIA accredited representatives.

I am confident that the President’s plan will prevail, and that DAPA and expanded DACA will be fully implemented. But our hearts go out to so many immigrants for whom this comes as one more bitter disappointment. We may tell our clients that this is just a temporary setback, but “temporary” means one thing for us, and quite another for people who have already lived for years under a cloud of fear, depravation and humiliation. Even a few months delay adds unnecessary stress and uncertainty for immigrant families who have already suffered enough.

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More Kindness

George SaundersWe saw a lot of discord in our country this year. The civil unrest in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere; the ongoing stalemate in Washington; the ever widening gap between rich and poor. These and the many other societal problems we face are deeply troubling, and fixing them will not be easy. But as the year winds down and a new one begins, I remembered this speech delivered by the writer George Saunders at Syracuse University’s commencement. Since a new year is a commencement of sorts, I thought I would share it with you. It is a lovely piece of writing, with a very simple message. Mr. Saunders suggests that people take up the habit of exercising kindness as early in their lives as possible. It is not a commodity that runs out, and the more we practice it, the more we seem to have of it.

I hope you enjoy Mr. Saunders words, and I wish you and yours a wonderful New Year — filled with kindness.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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The Measure of a Man

Mario Cuomo speaking at a rally in 1991. Photo: Sgt. Tracy Santee, USAF, via Wikimedia Commons.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo speaking at a rally in 1991. (Photo: Sgt. Tracy Santee/ US Air Force.)

Earlier this week, former Governor Mario Cuomo was laid to rest. The scene outside of his funeral was somber, stately, and serene, everything dusted with a light coat of snow.  That seemed just right for a politician who, for all his enormous appeal, never played to the crowd. He didn’t care what other people thought, he cared what he thought. His own deeply held principles guided his actions and wrote a legacy of accomplishment built on common sense, compassion and respect.

Mario Cuomo was a loyal Democrat, but he proudly called himself a pragmatist. His ability to balance ideology and a commitment to getting things done yielded great results for the State of New York. He introduced broad fiscal reforms that strengthened our economy, and led the nation in environmental protection and conservation initiatives.

The son of Italian immigrants and a devout Catholic, he grew up in Queens where he served both as an altar boy and a friend to the Jewish community, delivering groceries to a local synagogue. Mr. Cuomo experienced ethnic prejudice in the late fifties when, as a young lawyer, scores of prominent New York City law firms declined to hire him. Perhaps this informed his commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and justice.

He fought for the rights of the poor, the elderly and the disabled, championed improvements in public education, and aggressively addressed the AIDS epidemic. He was the first governor to appoint women and minorities to prominent judicial seats.

Mr. Cuomo was notably sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of Jews. He was instrumental in the creation of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, dedicated to remembering the Holocaust and to fighting intolerance in all its forms. His advocacy on behalf of observant Jews resulted in the passage of numerous bills enabling us to balance religious practice with secular laws.

Mr. Cuomo spoke his mind no matter the consequences. His passionate and outspoken opposition to the death penalty likely cost him the New York City mayoral election in 1977. And, despite his personal opposition to abortion, he supported a woman’s right to choose.

Mario Cuomo was a special sort of politician. He was a seeker of knowledge, a pursuer of truth, a student of life. He also wrote books, good ones. I came upon an interview he gave in 2004 after the publication of one of them, Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever. He was asked what his favorite thing about Abraham Lincoln was. Here is part of his answer:

“Lincoln talked a lot about religion, the basic spiritual truths that every religion starts with. What is your relationship with other human beings? And what is your mission? Well, Jews say the mission is Tikkun olam, repair the universe. And Christians say be collaborators in the universe. Lincoln wasn’t a Christian and he wasn’t a Jew, but he said exactly the same thing. Your whole mission is to try to make this place better, make this living experience better.  We don’t have anybody who talks that way now, and that’s why I wrote the book.”

Mr. Cuomo did more than write the book. He talked that way and he lived that way, and he made this world a better place.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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