Access-to-justice gap impacts the poor and working poor alike

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This week, I read a troubling article in the New York Times on a recent Bloomberg administration study that found that “about 46 percent of New Yorkers were making less than 150 percent of the poverty threshold, a benchmark used to describe people who are not officially poor but who still struggle to get by. That represents a rise of more than three percentage points since 2009, when the nation’s recession officially ended.”  (Click here to read the article.)

23 years ago, as a young attorney working to protect elderly New Yorkers from financial and physical mistreatment, I was especially struck by the gap in the availability of civil legal services for those living on the edge of poverty. NYLAG was founded to provide free legal services to low-income New Yorkers, foregoing federal funding so that we could serve the near-poor as well as those individuals in abject poverty – a distinction among other service providers that sets us apart to this day.

The mayor’s report underscores how the needs of the poor and near poor continue to intersect – and why it is vital that we find ways to provide legal assistance across the continuum of those in financial distress. The economic downturn that started nearly five years ago, and Superstorm Sandy that hit just six months ago, are prime examples of how outside forces can thrust people who are doing okay, getting by and paying their bills, into financial crisis. And looming large just up ahead are the growing ranks of Baby Boomers increasingly facing a web of legal hurdles as economic factors and the impact of aging makes them vulnerable to eviction or foreclosure, consumer debt, health care legal needs and more.

NYLAG exists because we know that low-income individuals can improve their lives significantly if given access to the justice system.  Those who represent themselves are considerably more likely to lose their cases than those who have qualified attorneys.  Poor or near-poor, they should not be forced to navigate the complexities of the civil justice system alone.

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

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Thank you, Gang of Eight, For Hearing Us (But Can We Talk?)

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webI want to applaud the bipartisan group of Senators, including New York’s own Chuck Schumer, who pulled off the nearly impossible by actually bringing a sweeping immigration reform bill to the table. The bill is a great starting point and contains many provisions that would alleviate hardships suffered by immigrants as a result of antiquated and unfair laws and procedures.

The 800-page draft legislation includes several provisions I am proud to say NYLAG brought to the attention of the Administration and legislators through a targeted advocacy campaign – click here to read our Framework for Comprehensive Reform – including:

  • The classification of the spouses and children of Legal Permanent Residents as “immediate relatives,” replacing a process mired in backlogs with a sensible approach that will keep families together.
  • A new “derivative” provision that will further strengthen families: this original NYLAG concept grants the derivatives of immediate relatives the same status (without a separate petition) as the principal beneficiary, replacing the current several-year waiting period.
  • The inclusion of immigrants who hold Temporary Protected Status (due to unsafe conditions in their home countries) as eligible for legalization. NYLAG has written to Secretary Napolitano urging such a change in current immigration policies, and we started a petition to support it. Click here to read and sign.
  • The creation of a mandate for the appointment of counsel to children, the mentally disabled, and other vulnerable individuals in removal proceedings, along with the restoration of judicial discretion and the lowering of the bar to grant waivers in removal proceedings.

There are other provisions in the Senate bill we also endorse, including:

  • A good version of the Dream Act to help young people who were brought here illegally as children speedily become citizens, including removal of the arbitrary age cap requirements.
  • The removal of the one-year bar on asylum filings, an onerous requirement that left far too many legitimate asylum applicants without access to relief.
  • The creation of a V-visa, which allows individuals with approved family-based petitions to live and work in the US while waiting for their green cards.
  • The creation of a Registered Provisional Immigrant status to legalize the status of the over 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country.

Unfortunately, however, the bill also includes ideas that are seriously misguided, and may even make meaningful reform unattainable, such as:

  • The use of border security goals as a trigger for when Registered Provisional Immigrants will be allowed to become lawful permanent residents – a provision that appears nebulous and unattainable.
  • The establishment of an indeterminate period of “temporary status,” thereby creating another sub-class of immigrants. This will leave millions in limbo, with no certainty or predictability for when their citizenship will be granted.
  • The elimination of the family-based visa category of sibling petitions, a step backwards.
  • The lack of any provisions recognizing permanent partners who are in a committed, intimate relationship.
  • The creation of new grounds of inadmissibility and deportability related to an already long list of grounds that serve as insurmountable barriers to a great many applicants.

I sincerely thank the Gang of Eight for bringing our country one huge step closer to the reformation of our immigration system. This is landmark legislation in many respects, and a remarkable political achievement. The devil of course is in the details, and NYLAG will continue to be a fervent champion of getting those details right, so we can move forward on the path to a smart, workable and just immigration policy.

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

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Six Things Considered: What NPR Missed

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NYLAG attorneys know first-hand how crucial disability benefits are for eligible families.

NYLAG attorneys know first-hand how crucial disability benefits are for eligible families.

A furor is raging – as it should, over an NPR series on Social Security disability programs that does a grave injustice to the millions of Americans who live with disabilities. The series, “Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America,” and an accompanying This American Life episode, is inaccurate and incomplete, perpetuating dangerous stereotypes. It mistakenly represents disability status as something that people want because it is a good “deal,” suggests that parents might hold back a child academically to keep their disability benefits, and questions whether people who “look healthy” ought to be receiving disability benefits. It sounds the alarm about skyrocketing increases in those receiving benefits, but fails to report on the demographic trends driving that growth, or the fact that once these factors play out, the programs are projected to decline in coming years. Because of these and other mischaracterizations, I thought I would try to give you some of the facts as we see them at NYLAG.

NYLAG attorneys work to ensure that eligible disabled people receive benefits under the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, which provides income supplements to people who have contributed enough in payroll taxes to be eligible if they become disabled before reaching retirement age, and under the Supplemental Security Income Program, which helps low-income disabled children and adults to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. We know only too well the challenges the disabled face, and the vital need for these programs. Whether you have seen or plan to see the NPR series, here are six points to consider.

1. These programs provide vital support to millions of disabled Americans, but that support is far from a windfall for those who receive it. It is a lifeline keeping millions of people from deep poverty and homelessness.

2. It’s not easy to qualify for disability benefits. We know because we represent clients who are eligible, and more than half are denied initially, and require an appeal. The rules are strict, and only the most severely impaired qualify.

3. The expense of caring for a child with a disability can be crushing. The income support from the Supplemental Security Income Program makes it possible for many children to remain at home with their families instead of needing to be in an institution to receive their care.

4. There is not a direct correlation between a child’s academic performance and the loss of benefits. In fact, the Supplemental Security Income Program helps families to access services that support educational development.

5. Just because someone looks healthy does not mean she is healthy. Today the leading causes of disability both in the U.S. and around the world are largely invisible: mental illness and musculoskeletal disorders such as carpel tunnel syndrome and other labor-related injuries.

6. Demographics, not lenient disability standards, account for the large increase in the Social Security rolls – trends like aging baby boomers, more women in the workforce, and Social Security’s rising retirement age.

I am a big fan of NPR, and most of the time I think they do a great job of reporting on complex and sensitive issues in a way that is balanced and fair. But this time they got it wrong.

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

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Let’s honor the dead by caring for the living

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Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual opportunity for people everywhere to come together and remember and honor those who died in the Holocaust. This year, the occasion coincides with the 70th anniversary of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, when residents of the Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Poland, staged an armed revolt that ultimately failed, but lives on as a singular moment of courage in the face of impossible odds.

I can think of no better way to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day than to recommit to doing everything in our power to care for the Holocaust survivors still living in our midst. New York City has the largest population of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel, a population that is now elderly and increasingly vulnerable. Most are now in their eighties, often living alone, isolated by language and poverty, their health diminished due to age and to the deprivation and trauma they experienced during the war.

Our attorneys work across practice areas to maintain the dignity and well-being of survivors. NYLAG’s Holocaust Compensation Assistance Project has assisted over 60,000 Holocaust survivors or the heirs of survivors with accurate information and legal assistance regarding compensation and restitution programs. We improve the quality of life for elderly survivors by reducing both the extent and depth of poverty by helping to secure public benefits including Medicare, Medicare, Medicaid home care, and food stamps. We provide representation in housing disputes, secure monthly pensions, arrange for powers of attorney and health care proxies, and address issues of physical abuse, financial exploitation and neglect.

There is no better way to remember those who died in the Holocaust than to alleviate the suffering of those who survived.

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

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Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

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I want to update my earlier post on immigration reform and provide you with the New York Legal Assistance Group’s Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a detailed outline of the key considerations we think are critical to the overhaul of a legal and regulatory system that is unjust, impractical and harmful to millions of hardworking immigrants and their families.

I would like to thank Irina Matiychenko and the staff of NYLAG’s Immigrant Protection Unit who drafted the Framework. Their decades of experience have given them an in-depth understanding of what an innovative and workable reform package needs to include. I hope you will take a few moments to read the Framework, and if you wish, share it with others who care passionately about getting immigration reform right.

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

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Leave it to the for-profit-school industry to follow the money

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A recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that the Minnesota attorney general is investigating the aggressive recruiting tactics used by large for-profit colleges to woo returning veterans and other military personnel. The attorney general is looking into allegations that the schools’ deceptive marketing tactics targeted veterans with access to lucrative GI Bill benefits, misleading them about tuition costs, graduation rates and their likelihood of getting a job after graduation. From mid-2009 to January 2013, an eye-popping 53 percent of the $300 million in GI Bill benefits sent to the State have gone to for-profit schools.

The news out of Minnesota is just the latest salvo from the nation’s for-profit post-secondary schools, which make money from government-guaranteed student loans yet offer little to their students but crushing debt. New York City alone is home to approximately 300 for-profit schools, where enrollment has increased by over 200 percent in the last decade. They aggressively recruit students who did not graduate from high school, are under- or unemployed, and have had little or no exposure to higher education. The student population at for-profit schools is older, lower-income, and higher-borrowing than at non-profit or public schools.  A student at a for-profit school is more likely to be foreign-born, of color, and supporting dependents than a student at a non-profit or public school. Offering promises of well-paying jobs upon graduation, these schools use high-pressure sales pitches to enroll students, usually on the spot. More than half of students enrolled in for-profit colleges or trade schools drop out within four weeks of enrollment. Those who do graduate find that their resulting credentials, though costly in the form of student loans, are not marketable to employers.

NYLAG attorneys have spoken with a number of individuals who are having their federal income tax refunds seized and who are being hounded by debt collectors over student loans, yet are unable to find a job in the field in which they studied. Our clients, though they attended different schools, tell a similar story: recruiters promised them that they would be able to earn a high wage with their degree and that the school would guarantee them a job, and they signed up impulsively. Many clients did not even realize that they had taken out student loans because the recruiters characterized them as “grants” or “scholarships.” Many dropped out and were not told that the school would hold them liable for the full semester’s tuition, even if they had only attended for two weeks.

As part of our Consumer Protection Project, NYLAG attorneys assist individuals to resolve student loan issues. In talking to numerous clients who have attended for-profit schools, we are seeing patterns of illegal behavior. NYLAG’s Special Litigation Unit (SLU) is exploring ways to provide systemic relief from  student loan debts for this population, and to improve the oversight of for-profit schools.  SLU hopes to expose regulatory loopholes at the State and federal level that are being exploited by for-profit schools, and send a message to these schools that they will be held accountable for their deceptive and predatory tactics. Ultimately, this action would also benefit taxpayers, who are paying for the federal student loan programs that transfer money to these for-profit schools – money that does nothing to benefit students. The bottom line is that higher education should be about generating profits for students, not corporations.

SLU has set up a Career and Trade Schools Hotline for people experiencing problems with for-profit schools: (212) 946-0354.

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

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Now is the time

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President Obama urged swift action on comprehensive immigration reform during a speech he delivered in January.

In January President Obama called for a swift path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, saying “now is the time” for comprehensive immigration reform.  His sense of urgency is welcome.

NYLAG has worked with immigrants of every status for almost 20 years, battling the complexity, capriciousness, and inequities of our immigration policies. Within the next several weeks our immigration attorneys will unveil a position paper outlining the specific steps, some never before proposed, that can usher in a new era of comprehensive immigration reform.

Our recommendations are built on the following unifying principles:

  • Immigrant families need to be together, and they need to be together now, not in eight years, or ten, or more, because human life is not unending.
  • We must banish the “back of the line” concept, which is both ambiguous and ignores the reality of human life expectancy.
  • Don’t create second class status for lawful permanent residents: ensure that permanent residency leads to citizenship.
  • Any new law must not make legalization conditional on unreasonable requirements that exclude, discriminate or create insurmountable obstacles for undocumented immigrants.
  • As long as national security and justice for the undocumented immigrants are paired, immigration reform will not proceed.
  • Due process and equal protection, pillars of our justice system, must be afforded to everyone living in this country, documented or undocumented.

Now is the time for America to create an immigration system that promotes unity and dignity for immigrant families that have suffered enough under the current broken system. A system that victimizes the innocent, breaks apart families, and keeps millions of hardworking people living in the shadows.  A system that fails our business interests, holds back our economy, and shames us in the eyes of other nations, and in our own.

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

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Ain’t they women?

Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisc.

The US House of Representatives today passed the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Like everyone concerned with the safety of women caught in the web of intimate partner violence, I am relieved and happy.  But nothing I say can top the words of Representative Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, who fought to keep the Senate version intact, because it included protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender victims of domestic abuse, immigrant victims, and Native American women on reservations.

During the debates this morning Ms. Moore stood on the House floor and decried the weaker version of the bill, which would have eliminated these protections. Paraphrasing the famous battle cry of women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, Ms. Moore put it this way:

“I pray that this body will do as the Senate has done and come together as one to protect all women from violence. As I think about the L.G.B.T. victims who are not here, the native women who are not here, the immigrants who aren’t in this bill, I would say, as Sojourner Truth would say, ‘Ain’t they women?’

Couldn’t have said it better than that.

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

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Religious institutions deserve a fair shake

Scores of churches, synagogues and other houses of worship were damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

Last week, the US House of Representatives passed the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act of 2013, which would make religious institutions eligible for disaster relief funding. This is a common sense move that would keep the decisions about who receives government aid neutral with regard to religion –  granting churches, synagogues, mosques and temples the right to apply for federal assistance in the wake of a disaster.

The bill, introduced by a bipartisan coalition of representatives from New York and New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, is well named – because it really is about fairness. Federal assistance is already granted to other non-profits, including museums, cultural centers and schools, all of which deliver essential services that the government would be otherwise responsible for providing to its citizens. Religious institutions deserve the same designation. Many of them provide vital social services such as soup kitchens, food pantries, libraries and schools.  In fact, many churches and synagogues in New York and New Jersey have been on the front lines since the storm, helping to provide basic needs to all storm victims in their communities, regardless of religious affiliation.

NYLAG knows firsthand the plight of New York religious organizations whose operations and facilities were damaged by Sandy. Our Storm Response Unit has fielded requests for assistance from over 70 sectarian and non-sectarian organizations thus far. In the early days post-Sandy we presented a well-attended training, specifically designed to educate nonprofits and answer their legal questions. We proactively reached out to offer assistance to all types of institutions affected by the storm.  Our priority has been to encourage every organization to apply for federal benefits, even if their eligibility is not yet clear. This remains critically important, whether or not the Fairness Act becomes law. The FEMA deadline for applications is now Wednesday, February 27. Please join with NYLAG in making sure that every organization affected by the storm submits an initial application for FEMA assistance. For more information, call our Storm Hotline at 212-584-3365 or visit [email protected]

I hope that the Nonprofit Fairness Act receives swift attention and affirmative passage in the US Senate so that religious institutions can access the same FEMA funding and Small Business Administration loans that other non-profit organizations are eligible to receive.  In the short term, our communities need every asset available to recover from Sandy.  Going forward, every nonprofit organization contributing to improving the quality of life in our nation deserves to know that when disaster strikes, their rights are recognized and will be protected.

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

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Credit Catch 22

NYLAG joined the Coalition to Stop Credit Checks at City Hall on February 6, 2013.

On Wednesday, February 6, Shana Khader and Erica Kyzmir, attorneys with NYLAG’s Consumer Protection Project, gathered with others on the steps of City Hall to call for passage of legislation in New York City that would restrict the use of credit reports in hiring decisions. Incredibly, over half of all employers currently check the credit histories of job applicants and employees, and then use this information to make hiring, promoting, firing, and other employment decisions.

It is unfair to base employment decisions on poor credit brought upon by the recession, a catastrophic illness, a divorce, or other life events out of one’s control. There is no evidence that a person’s credit history has anything to do with work performance. There is plenty of evidence, however, that if you don’t have a job you will have a hard time paying your bills, and your credit rating may suffer as a result. Here’s the catch: You need a job to get out of debt, but your debt keeps you unemployed.

Credit-history screening eliminates opportunities for millions of workers and their families — and also hurts employers by reducing the pool of talented, motivated workers who can build businesses and strengthen our economy. Job-related credit screenings also perpetuate discrimination against minorities, students and immigrants, who have been long victimized by predatory and deceitful lending practices that lead to mounting debt and poor credit. Did I mention that an estimated one in four credit reports contains a serious error? It’s time New York passed a law to prevent this injustice.

A survey to be released next week by Rutgers University reports that nearly a quarter of Americans say they were laid off at some point after the recession hit, and nearly eight out of ten say they know someone who has lost a job. Unemployment is the sad new normal for too many Americans. Let’s not allow unfair, discriminatory and inaccurate credit checks to stand between qualified workers and the jobs they deserve.

NYLAG is a member of the New York Coalition to Stop Credit Checks in Employment. I urge you to join us in this campaign at www.creditcatch22.org and end employer credit checks now.

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

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