Testimony by New York Legal Assistance Group (“NYLAG”) before the NYC Council Committee on Immigration regarding:

Preliminary Budget Hearing – Immigration

March 28, 2016

Chair Menchaca, Council Members, and staff, good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Immigration Committee about the FY17 budget.  My name is Beth Goldman, and I am the President & Attorney-in-Charge of the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). NYLAG is a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers.  NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBTQ community, Holocaust survivors, veterans, as well as others in need of free legal services.

I am honored to testify at the first-ever Immigration Committee budget hearing.  Having a budget hearing specifically to discuss immigration issues is long overdue, and I commend the City Council for scheduling this hearing.

Immigration Legal Services in New York City

New York City has a proud tradition of welcoming immigrants, and today almost 40% of City residents were born in another country.  For many low-income immigrants, New York City provides an opportunity for a new life, free of the violence and persecution to which they were subjected in their home countries.  For others, they are able to finally reunite their families in the City.  As one of the largest providers of immigration legal services in New York City, NYLAG provides a variety of immigration services to those immigrants who are unable to afford private attorneys, and is honored to receive a number of grants for this work through the City.  Through these grants from the City Council, HRA, DYCD, and MOIA, NYLAG is able to provide a high volume of immigration services on a variety of immigration issues, including citizenship and naturalization, adjustment of status, asylum, removal, VAWA self-petitions, U visas, Special Immigration Juvenile Status (SIJS), temporary protected status, employment authorization, and access to government benefits.

I applaud these agencies for frequently thinking outside the box on immigration services, creating innovative strategies to reach and assist low-income immigrants.  Whether it’s the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative grant, which this year allowed NYLAG to provide clinics at the Council’s Key to the City events, the Neighborhood Development Area grants that allow us to concentrate on providing services to immigrant communities, or ActionNYC, which places attorneys in community-based organizations throughout the City to reach new populations, it is clear that the Administration and the Council have made immigration services a priority.  We are proud to be one of the inaugural recipients of funding through the Immigrant Health Initiative, which was created last year to fund organizations with creative solutions to assisting immigrants obtain health care and allowed NYLAG to further expand its immigration and other legal services in New York Health + Hospitals facilities.  The City has also made it a point to be ready for new developments in immigration law, quickly reacting to the announcement of DACA in 2012 with additional funding, and creating programs that will address DAPA should it be implemented following an affirmative Supreme Court decision.

I know that providing quality services to immigrants will continue to be of the utmost importance to the Council and the Administration as decisions are made on the FY17 budget.  I hope that we will continue to see new and expanded initiatives this year, as the needs of immigrants continue to grow and outpace the services available, and that a significant portion of that funding will be directed toward complex representation.  In calendar year 2015, NYLAG handled 12,459 immigration cases, but was forced to turn away tens of thousands more because of lack of funding, and funding restrictions.  While we do not believe that any immigration matter is “straightforward,” there has been a trend of late in both funding from the City and other government and private funders toward providing services on narrow types of cases, namely naturalization and DACA.  There is a great need for these services, and these funding streams are critical to NYLAG and other organizations in providing them, but we want to make sure that this is balanced by multi-year, baselined funding for complex representation such as asylum, removal defense, and SIJS.  We are thrilled that immigration clinics have become integral to many City programs, but it means that we often screen clients who are not necessarily eligible for these types of services, but require more long-term representation.  We hope that the key agencies involved in funding immigration legal services will continue to coordinate, and will help ensure that there is balance between funding for simpler and more complex cases.

Improving Provision of Immigration Legal Services Funding

            We are so grateful that the City understands the important role immigrants play in communities throughout the five boroughs, and that funding has been consistently provided for legal services to immigrants over the past several years.  Unfortunately, this increase in funding has come with some delays and uncertainties in the procurement process that have left not-for-profits struggling to budget for immigration services each year.  This past year, two significant streams of immigration funding were delayed for at least an additional year, delaying the expected expansion of key programs meant to increase services Citywide, and leaving planned partnerships in limbo.  When RFPs are postponed several times and proposals are not evaluated in time to implement them in the planned fiscal year, it can be very difficult to make decisions on staff and caseloads.  Some proposals put forth involve complex partnerships that will take time to implement, and agencies need time to plan these programs.  I hope that the City will take this into account when making plans for FY17.

            I also hope the City will reconsider the interaction between funder agencies and grantee not-for-profit organizations.  Government and nonprofit agencies can work better together, and this can start with funders soliciting the expertise of nonprofit organizations in the design of programs so as to maximize the programs’ efficacy.  This recommendation is highlighted in the recent Human Services Council report analyzing the relationship between nonprofits and government funders[1].  Legal services and community-based organizations are more than willing to meet with Administration and Council leaders and staff to discuss the issues that we are seeing on the ground through daily provision of service, and how we think programs can best be designed and implemented to ensure positive results.  The City is one of the largest providers of immigration funding, and allowing providers a seat at the table in the design of RFPs would go a long way toward ensuring that programs are effectively and efficiently serving those immigrants most in need.

I want to once again take the opportunity to thank Chair Menchaca and the members of the Committee for their exceptional leadership and commitment to overseeing issues related to immigration in New York City, and for working to schedule this hearing today.  I welcome the opportunity to discuss any of these matters with the Committee further.

 

Respectfully submitted,

New York Legal Assistance Group

[1] Human Services Council.  “New York Nonprofits in the Aftermath of FEGS: A Call to Action.”  February 2016.  http://www.humanservicescouncil.org/Commission/HSCCommissionReport.pdf