Some Good News for New York State’s Immigrants

Statue of Liberty

On the national front this has been a summer of disappointment, outrage and guarded hope for the rights of immigrant families living in our country. Comprehensive immigration reform seems like a distant memory, unaccompanied children are fleeing persecution only to be denied due process and fast-tracked into removal, while we must wait to see if President Obama can make good on his promise to do everything within his power to put potentially millions of people on the path to permanent legal status.

For New York State, however, this has been a season of progress in one very important area: combatting immigration fraud. Last week, Governor Cuomo signed legislation to strengthen laws against those who commit immigration assistance fraud, while earlier this summer Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a fund to compensate immigrants defrauded by two now-defunct immigration service organizations.

Immigrant Assistance Service Enforcement Act
Many immigrant advocates including NYLAG supported the Governor’s new bill, which will help protect immigrants from being deceived or defrauded by individuals or organizations that promise immigration-related services but instead take their victims’ money and leave them vulnerable to deportation. The law sets clear standards for providers of immigration assistance and establishes strict penalties for those who violate the law, in particular anyone who purports to be an attorney but is not. The law has real teeth, creating two new crimes: felony and misdemeanor immigration assistance fraud.

$2.2 million Restitution Fund
The new fund was created by the Attorney General as part of a settlement of claims that two large immigration services organizations held out fraudulent promises of citizenship while engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. NYLAG has been appointed Administrator of the claims process, which will allow immigrant clients to submit claims for fees they paid to these organizations for immigration services that were never lawfully rendered. (With the claims process open until late October, in under two weeks NYLAG has already received 1,250 calls and 300 claim forms.) As part of the settlement, the organizations and their founder are prohibited from providing immigration-related legal services in the future.

Together, tougher laws and compensation for victims send a clear message to unscrupulous immigration services providers: New York State is serious about fighting immigration fraud with every legislative and legal weapon it has. 

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

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Yes, He Can

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Over 500,000 immigrants brought to the US as children have received Deferred Action status. Many more still need immigration relief.

After months of waiting, President Obama was informed Monday that Congress will not be voting on immigration legislation this year. So, the President announced that by the end of this summer he will undertake “a new effort to fix as much of our immigration system as I can on my own, without Congress.”

President Obama is doing the right thing. Congress has failed our nation’s most deserving immigrant populations, and the President has both the legal power and the moral imperative to do everything he can to support them.

Public interest attorneys are on the front lines, representing immigrant clients who have been victims of the inefficiencies and injustices of our current laws. We know what is broken and have developed innovative, sensible reforms that are within the President’s sphere of influence and authority. For example, a year before the implementation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), we at NYLAG recommended just such a use of prosecutorial discretion to help undocumented youth. Introduced by the President in June 2012, DACA enables qualified immigrants who came to this country as young children to receive temporary work authorization and other benefits. Over 500,000 DACA applications have been approved to date, and the program was just renewed for another two years.

If the President really intends to do as much as he can to fix our immigration system, he can start with DACA. It should be expanded to include a group of young immigrants who otherwise meet all the criteria, except that they currently hold Temporary Protected Status (TPS) because of unsafe conditions in their countries of origin. Giving these young people DACA would give them greater protection, ensuring that they are not at risk of deportation when their countries’ TPS expires. In addition, the DACA age limit should be expanded or done away with altogether. The present requirement that applicants be under 31 years of age as of June 15, 2012, is arbitrary and disqualifies a great many older candidates who were brought to the US as young children, and are otherwise eligible.

The Administration can also expand an existing policy called “parole in place” to include individuals currently present in the US who have an immediate relative who is a US citizen. This would mean a multitude of immigrants with no criminal records and strong family ties in the US could secure green cards without being forced to leave the US in order to apply for reentry with status.

In addition, the President can use the power of the Executive branch to instruct the Department of Homeland Security to exercise its prosecutorial discretion to defer or delay deportations in cases where people have immediate relatives who are US citizens, longstanding ties to the community, or are otherwise of good moral character.

The real solution to fixing our unworkable and unfair immigration laws is comprehensive reform – which most Americans support. But the political realities in Washington have yet again doomed that dream. President Obama has no choice now but to go it alone. Luckily, there is quite a lot he can do.

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

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Albany Scorecard

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The State legislative session came to a close in Albany last week. While there were a few bright spots, there were also many disappointments for low-income New Yorkers struggling to combat discrimination, pursue legal status, remain in their homes and navigate our civil court system. Several bills critically important to NYLAG’s clients did pass, but unfortunately a number of equally important pieces of legislation were either defeated or did not make it to a vote this year. Here’s a quick rundown:

NY Senate gives final passage to foreclosure prevention billExtended Foreclosure Protections for Homeowners: The State’s foreclosure settlement conference process will continue to be available for the next five years for individuals in pre-foreclosure. An expiration of this vital protection would have put tens of thousands of New York homeowners in serious danger of losing their homes.

More Judges in New York Family CourtMore Judges in Family Court: With broad communal support, the legislature passed a Judiciary budget that includes funding for 20 more Family Court judges. This measure will alleviate an overburdened system and make civil justice more attainable for people seeking help in Family Court to resolve their most basic and critical problems.

Housing Relief for People with Disabilities: DRIE BillHousing Relief for People with Disabilities: Fair-minded legislation will enable more lower-income tenants with disabilities to live affordably and independently by giving them the same partial rent increase exemption benefit that was granted to lower-income seniors earlier this year.

Thumbs UpSteps to Curb Immigration Fraud: Albany took a step in the right direction by creating new penalties for fraudulent legal practitioners who prey on immigrant communities, but we still need to fight for more protections and better relief for victims of immigration fraud.

No Relief from Unfair Work PoliciesNo Relief from Unfair Work Policies: A bill to reform unfair work sanction policies governing disabled, ill, and vulnerable recipients of public benefits died in the Assembly. Legislators had already weakened it by restricting the reforms to New York City. When we take this up again next year, it must be on behalf of all New Yorkers.

Economic Insecurity Continues for DV VictimsEconomic Insecurity Continues for DV Victims: Pushback from the New York State Bar and others stalled the passage of bills that would have given low-income spouses, including many domestic violence victims, a measure of financial stability by establishing standards for final alimony awards that are predictable, accessible and equitable.

Transgender Individuals Denied Basic RightsTransgender Individuals Denied Basic Rights: A bill was defeated that would have outlawed discrimination against transgender people who are still being denied jobs, housing, credit and access to public services because of their gender identity. Sixteen states have enacted such laws. Why not New York?

No Financial Aid for Deserving Immigrant StudentsNo Financial Aid for Deserving Immigrant Students: Despite broad-based support, we came up one vote short of passing a bill that would have given undocumented immigrant students access to public financial aid, a natural next step for a state that has led the nation in progressive immigration policies.

I wish the good news outweighed the bad, but we will continue to fight for legislation that addresses these issues and many others that impact the lives of vulnerable people.

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

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We Have Two Days to Help People with Disabilities Get a Fair Shake

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DisabilityAnyone who cares about the housing insecurity that plagues New Yorkers with disabilities should take a few minutes to read this. 

Two NY State legislators, Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh and Senator Diane Savino, supported by disabilities rights advocates, have sponsored a bill (A9744/S7640) that will enable more low-income tenants with disabilities to qualify for a partial rent exemption. The proposed bill would raise the income eligibility requirements for the Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) program, which freezes rents for low-income people with disabilities who live in rent-regulated housing and pay one-third or more of their income in rent. Landlords are fully compensated through property tax abatements. Good idea.

What makes this bill a particular no-brainer is the fact that DRIE was designed to be similar to the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) program. But right now it’s not – and that’s not fair. While the annual income limit for SCRIE was raised from $29,000 to $50,000 as part of the State’s fiscal year 2014-2015 budget, the income limits for DRIE were left unchanged. This bill remedies that, making the income limit for DRIE eligibility identical to that of SCRIE. This simple measure can prevent vulnerable people with disabilities from facing eviction, becoming even more impoverished by ever-rising rents, or being forced into nursing homes (at much greater cost to taxpayers).

This bill needs to pass the before the legislature adjourns on Thursday, June 19th. I hope you will join with me in calling for prompt passage of this fair-minded legislation. The plight of low-income people with disabilities is comparable in every way to that of their senior counterparts. They both deserve the same opportunity to live affordably and independently.

You can read the full text of the bill here. I urge you to leave a comment and to voice your support to your local representatives. Click here to enter your home address and find your Assemblymember.

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

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The Poverty Quiz

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A number of recent surveys have all confirmed that even as the recession fades, the poverty rate in New York City continues to climb — while the gap in income between rich and poor remains entrenched. We’ve all read about the phenomenon of gentrification in neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem, the South Bronx and Upper Manhattan, where many families who have lived in these communities for generations are quickly being priced out of the housing market. But do we really know how bad things are?

Robin Hood and Columbia School of Social Work have developed Poverty Tracker survey, a new tool for getting a more accurate picture of poverty in New York City. Poverty Tracker has been surveying NYC households on a quarterly basis since December 2012. Recently, they announced the first wave of results, which reveal that the hardships suffered by disadvantaged New Yorkers are far worse than what official measures suggest. According to the survey, last year nearly 4 in 10 New Yorkers faced a persistent shortage of basic necessities like food or medical care, or experienced an acute incident of deprivation, such as staying in a shelter or moving in with others.

Robin Hood’s leadership in developing more comprehensive measures to reveal the true depth of hardship in our City has inspired me. The quiz below, taken from a number of sources, will test how well you know the struggles faced by poor and low-income New Yorkers. I will give you a hint: it is not a pretty picture.

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

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Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

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With broad communal support, earlier this month, the New York State Senate and Assembly passed a Judiciary budget that includes funding for 20 more Family Court judges. The Legislature, along with the Governor and the Judiciary are to be commended for respecting the needs of people who have no choice but to seek help in Family Court to resolve the most basic and critical problems in their lives. Unfortunately, as yesterday’s New York Law Journal article points out, although the State budget includes the funding for these new judges, creating the positions is another hurdle altogether.

Every day public interest attorneys — from my organization and many others representing poor and low-income clients in Family Court — see firsthand the toll taken because of the shortage of judges. As the below video shows, children in foster care wait to be returned to their families, victims of domestic violence remain at risk, and critical support payments are delayed. I am confident, despite past inaction, that this time there is the will and the bi-partisan support for the Legislature to agree on the distribution of the new judgeships, and address the crisis in our Family Court system.

NYLAG is a member of the coalition that helped bring this issue to the attention of our lawmakers. Join us on social media to ensure that our victory in the budget is successfully translated to the bench.

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

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NYLAG Calls for Expansion of Lautenberg Amendment

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Earlier today, on behalf of NYLAG, I issued the following press release asking President Obama and Congress to act swiftly to expand the Lautenberg Amendment on behalf of thousands of Jewish families facing religious persecution in Ukraine.

NYLAG Calls for Expansion of Lautenberg Amendment as Situation for Jews in Ukraine Worsens

The Ukrainian letter calling upon Jews to register.

The Ukrainian letter calling upon Jews to register.

(NEW YORK – April 18, 2014) In light of the civil unrest and escalating violence in Ukraine, New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) is calling for the immediate expansion of the Lautenberg Amendment. The amendment, named for the late U.S. Senator, Frank Lautenberg, has for many years been a pathway to freedom for Jews and other religious minorities fleeing persecution.

In March, as the situation in Ukraine deteriorated and Jews living in the country reported an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, NYLAG immigration attorneys began meeting with U.S. and other officials to push for an expansion of the Lautenberg Amendment to provide eligibility to a wider population of Ukrainian Jews.

NYLAG stepped up its efforts earlier this week after it was reported that Jewish worshipers leaving Passover service in an eastern Ukraine town were handed leaflets by masked men requiring Ukrainian Jews to register their names and proof of property ownership, or risk deportation. This week, NYLAG attorneys met with a senior advisor to U.S. Senator Corey Booker, heir to Mr. Lautenberg’s Senate seat, to discuss the possibility of expanding the application and implementation of the Lautenberg Amendment.

“The political uncertainty, the imminent economic collapse, and now blatant acts of anti-Semitism have triggered a new wave of fear among the Jews of Ukraine, leading to an increased movement to migrate. Given the history, the propaganda, and the rapidly changing situation in Ukraine, Jews have good reason to expect that their lives will change quickly and dramatically for the worse,” said Yisroel Schulman, NYLAG’s President and Attorney-in-Charge. “President Obama and Congress need to act now to protect the Jews of Ukraine. The Lautenberg Amendment can be the mechanism for securing the safety of Jews facing religious persecution. Not acting swiftly may result in dire consequences for thousands of Jewish families currently trapped in the Ukraine.”

The Lautenberg Amendment was first introduced in 1990 to grant eligibility for refugee status to Jews fleeing the Former Soviet Union to resettle in the U.S. In 2004 the amendment was expanded to assist religious minorities fleeing Iran. Under the Lautenberg Amendment, individuals are eligible to apply for refugee status if they can prove they are members of a religious minority subject to persecution, and have so-called “first degree” relatives — spouses, parents, children, siblings, grandparents — permanently living in the United States.

In light of the worsening political situation and the recent wave of migration by Ukrainian Jews, NYLAG is proposing a broader interpretation of the amendment to allow the aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins of permanent US residents to enter the US under the refugee program. Expanding the policy would potentially allow a greater percentage of Ukrainian Jews to obtain refugee status in the US.

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

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Incremental Steps Still Spell Progress

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On Sunday the New York Times correctly called upon President Obama to halt the high rates of deportations of law-abiding, productive immigrants who deserve to remain in the US. (Yes He Can, on Immigration) The editorial acknowledges that it is not the President’s fault that Congressional inaction has stalled the drive toward comprehensive immigration reform, but urges him to move quickly to make policy changes that are within his control. This includes expanding a NYLAG recommendation enacted by the President two years ago permitting many young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, to apply for immigration relief through a process called “Deferred Action”. While it is not a pathway to citizenship or a green card, Deferred Action entitles certain immigrants to receive temporary work authorization and other benefits. Under this policy, NYLAG has been able to protect thousands of young people from the risk of deportation. It is time for the Administration to offer the same protection to the parents of Dreamers, and to the many other undocumented immigrants forced to live in the shadows.

If he acts, the President would be following the lead of states and local governments who are not waiting for federal reforms, but taking meaningful steps now to help immigrants integrate into their communities, and contribute more in return.

Last November the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) published a report about the significant surge in pro-immigrant policies in 2013. This includes extending access to driver’s licenses or other IDs (New York City is working on one right now), along with moves to expand workplace rights for domestic workers and protections for workers whose employers exploit them based on their status.

The NILC report highlights another trend, where New York State has a head start: improved access to higher education for immigrant students. New York was one of the first states to enact legislation (in 2002) that provides in-state tuition rates for students attending state colleges and universities, regardless of their immigration status. 16 states have since adopted similar laws, and several more are getting close.

Unfortunately, earlier this year New York came up one vote short of passing a bill that would have taken this one step further by giving undocumented immigrant students access to public financial aid. This is a shame. Too many talented and motivated young immigrants – among our best and brightest – cannot afford the cost of a college education. I hope we get this right in the future.

As to President Obama, I remain optimistic. There is a balance of powers for a reason.  He has the opportunity to ensure his legacy as an advocate for deserving immigrants.

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

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Justice and Commonsense

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Client: Mother and ChildMany of us in the nonprofit community are on tenterhooks this week, as we await the unveiling of the State’s final budget. In addition to funding decisions that will impact our ability to serve struggling New Yorkers this year, there is another item that justice and commonsense would suggest made it into the final version. The Sanctions Reform Bill (A.2669/S.4830) would correct unfair and unnecessary policies governing people who apply for or receive public assistance benefits in New York State.

As a condition of receiving public benefits, recipients must, if able, participate in work-related activities, such as employment, education, and job training. If they do not comply, sanctions are imposed that reduce or eliminate their benefits for a period of three to six months. These penalties were put in place to prevent welfare fraud, but unfortunately they appear to have little impact beyond human suffering and skyrocketing costs.

Human suffering:

  • A disproportionate number of those sanctioned are disabled, ill, caring for young children or in other ways unable to participate in work activities. Others are able to comply, but for legitimate reasons could not participate in their work-related activity for some limited period of time.
  • A whopping 81% of administrative Fair Hearings related to work activity in New York State are overturned, but not until great harm has been done to low-income, vulnerable families.
  • Reduced or eliminated benefits lead to hunger, poor health, housing instability and homelessness. Families that already live without, live with less.
  • Sanctioned families are put under tremendous stress, exacerbating mental and physical disabilities, increasing the incidence of domestic violence, and disrupting the transition, for those who can, from welfare to work.

Societal Costs:

  • That 81% of hearings overturned? According to the Empire Justice Center, in 2011 there were 57,000 hearings related to work activities at an estimated cost to the State and districts of $18 million.
  • The underlying inefficiency of the Fair Hearing process, and subsequent costly appeals, add to this burden.
  • Sanctions drive up costs related to heath care and sheltering the homeless, straining already over-burdened pubic services.

The Sanctions Reform Bill proposes that the government be required to determine if an individual is unable to comply due to a disability, lack of child care or transportation. This just makes sense. The bill would prevent, presumably, the vast majority of sanctions from being imposed in the first place on those who cannot participate. For those who can comply with the work requirements, the system would allow the sanctions to be lifted immediately upon compliance, instead of forcing people to wait months to get back on the path to employment.

The work-activity policies we have now are indefensible. Low-income families are suffering unnecessarily, and all of us are paying the price. Let’s hope Albany agrees.

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

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Is The New York DREAM Act Still Alive?

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On March 17, the NY State Senate narrowly defeated the NY DREAM Act, a bill that would give undocumented immigrant students access to public financial assistance and create a fund to finance scholarships. This was a huge blow to those of us who see the bill as a natural next step for a state that has led the nation in progressive immigration policy.

Comprehensive, national reform of our badly broken immigration laws may not be happening as soon as we had hoped, but in the face of congressional inaction, states and local governments have not stood idle. Instead, they have made significant progress in establishing policies that provide added rights and protections for immigrants.

Before the bill’s defeat, Governor Cuomo said that if it made it to his desk he would sign the DREAM Act. High-profile supporters including Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Mayor de Blasio have called for the bill’s inclusion in the budget even after its defeat. Brooklyn Assemblyman Felix Ortiz and others say the bill still might be alive if the two houses can agree on a way to pay for the program without using taxpayers’ dollars.

A 2012 study by The Johns Hopkins University that tracked children from age 13 into their early 30s from families with diverse backgrounds found that the best students, and later the most successful young adults, were born in foreign countries and came to the U.S. before reaching their teens. I think in part this is because they have been through so much, and their experiences have given them a huge sense of responsibility to their families, their country and to themselves. They work part time jobs, help out at home, study heard, get good grades, and are leaders in their community. But a semester at SUNY can cost $8,000 – $9,000. If your parents are working two jobs, and what little money you make helps to pay the family bills, that probably isn’t going to happen. Unless we make it happen.

In 2002 New York enacted legislation granting all students, regardless of their status, in-state tuition rates for attending state colleges and universities. Now, we have the opportunity to lead once more and eliminate an even more formidable barrier to higher education by giving our immigrant youth access to financial aid.

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

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