America’s Children

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With the clock running out on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the fate of thousands of immigrants now rests in the hands of Congress. As they debate whether to grant these young people the right to remain in the only home they have ever known, lawmakers would do well to keep in mind that the nation – indeed the world – is watching. DACA Dreamers are citizens in all respects, but for their immigration status. We raised them, imbued them with our values and made them part of our culture and our very future. Most Americans agree that their unique situation calls for a compassionate and forward-looking solution.

French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “You become responsible, forever, for whom you have tamed.” Five years ago, President Obama acknowledged our responsibility to the nation’s Dreamers by issuing an Executive Order to offer a modest piece of the American Dream to children who were brought to this country while very young, were raised here, and long ago lost whatever ties they may have had to the countries of their parents’ origin. At the same time, we took a pragmatic approach. DACA was not a path to citizenship, it was temporary, and applicants had to prove that they deserved the opportunity. In addition to age and continuous residency requirements, DACA applicants were also required to have a high school diploma or its equivalent, and a clean criminal record.

The vast majority of those who applied for DACA benefits were granted temporary status. They have become professionals, they have served in the U.S. military, they have been integrated into American society, and they have contributed to our prosperity.

DACA protest at Columbus Circle.
Credit: Rhododendrites Photography

President Trump has reassured us that he has a great heart. Yet action has not followed those words. In fact, last week the heads of Homeland Security under three previous Administrations implored Congress to act within the next few weeks due to the many complexities involved in finalizing any DACA legislation. If not, it will be too late. The lives of 800,000 DACA recipients and the millions of family members who depend upon them will be thrown into chaos and uncertainty. The many thousands of companies that employ Dreamers will be severely negatively impacted. The consequences for our nation will be devastating — to our economy, to public safety, to the character of our communities, and to our moral stature around the world.

The United States has been skirting the issue of its undocumented children long enough. Any attempt to deport almost a million law abiding, productive, talented, and accomplished people who once were granted hope to live up to their dreams will not go unchallenged. My colleagues and I will do everything legally possible to help our Dreamers. We are fortunate to live in a country that is governed by the rule of law. DACA recipients cannot be deported without having their day in immigration court and we will do everything in our power to make sure that all 800,000 of them are properly represented.

We will fight back. It is our moral and legal obligation to do so. These are not somebody else’s children, they are our children. Congress must act today.

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Give the Gift of Literary Empathy

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By Elizabeth Gibson, Staff Attorney, Immigrant Protection Unit and Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow

‘Tis the season for dreading what family and friends might say at the holiday dinner table.

When politics differ, and this year there has been a lot of differing, how do you push back and educate without the entire meal exploding? Surely, there is a healthier method than twisting your napkin in knots under the table?

This year, consider a sneak attack in the form of literature. Infiltrate the book shelves of your familial adversaries with holiday gifts that make the recipients think. Distract them with engaging plots while slipping in social justice morals.


It is no accident that the rise of the human rights movement largely coincided with the advent of paperback literature. When print hit the shelves, it was the first time that people could get inside the head of someone from a different background. We become attached to characters and their struggles. We cheer them on and develop empathy.

Now, this can go too far. Often we romanticize poverty and struggle. Think of how overrepresented orphans are in literature and film, from Oliver Twist to half of Disney. Happily-ever-after endings can make everything look easy and trivialize the trauma, uncertainty, and messy imperfection of humanity.

However, there are plenty of extraordinary books out there that do not pull their punches, books that embrace a realistic narrative and make us think and feel. There is no guarantee that these books will resolve all the holiday tensions in your household – good luck with that – but maybe when the dishes are washed and the decorations are back in their boxes, the books that you gifted will be quietly changing hearts and minds. Tactical book gifting is not foolproof, but it might be a productive alternative to yelling at your friend’s uncle over a plate of cookies.

To get you started, here is a reading list from the book club at the New York Legal Assistance Group. This year’s list focuses on immigration in light of how divisive this topic was in 2017.

Hopefully, these books challenge you and your loved ones to view the world through different eyes this holiday season.

Social Justice Holiday Reading Gift Guide:
Understanding Immigration

1. In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, by Diane Guerrero (Non-Fiction)

 

In the immigration debate, we too seldom hear the voices of those most directly affected, immigrants and their families. In this book, actress Diane Guerrero, best known for her roles in Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, tells her own story. Her autobiography is full of humor and showbiz drama. However, this also is her account of what it feels like as a fourteen-year-old child to get home from school and find an empty house. After both her parents were deported, Guerrero, a native-born U.S. citizen, stayed behind and tried to make the most of her parents’ sacrifices.

 

2. Americanah by Chimamanda, by Ngozi Adichie (Fiction)

 

What kind of book list would this be without literary darling Americanah? Beyond the critical acclaim, Americanah challenges you to face race, class, gender, nationality, and every aspect of identity while weaving a story about two immigrants. One character has academic and career success in the United States, but she is unsure whether she is happy in her adopted home. Across the Atlantic, her old boyfriend finds himself coming to terms with a disastrous immigration experience in the United Kingdom.

 

 

3. Outcasts United by Warren, St. John (Non-Fiction)

 

From Mighty Ducks to Angels in the Outfield, Americans love stories about kids and sports. Outcasts United tells the true tale of a Southern town adjusting to the arrival of families from a refugee resettlement program. Although there are at times tension and misunderstanding, this is the inspiring story of children aiming for glory, one that also highlights the importance of community engagement and service.

 

 

4. Brooklyn: A Novel, by Colm Toibin (Fiction)

 

For the relatives who forget that we are all descended from immigrants, Brooklyn travels back to the 1950s, when immigrant families from Ireland and Italy came looking for work (and sometimes fell in love). The protagonist is a reluctant immigrant living out her sister’s dream of working in the United States while struggling to overcome homesickness and find her own dream.

 

 

 

5. Do They Hear You When You Cry, by Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir (Non-Fiction)

Young Fauziya’s story of fleeing a forced marriage and mutilation in Togo seems so much like something that could only happen in a movie that even the immigration judge thought it was impossible. However, as you begin reading about Fauziya’s life, you see how heartbreakingly real her situation is. Then, when she enters the United States and is detained pending an asylum hearing, the tale shifts to a devastating depiction of the daily trauma faced by a teenager trapped in prison. This captivating book follows one of the most famous cases in immigration law while providing a deeply personal look at what it means for someone to flee for her life and fight for a safer future.

 

6. The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, by Patrick Radden (Non-Fiction)

 

Looking to lure your family in with a crime thriller? This non-fiction story reads like a novel with FBI agents, a criminal kingpin, gang hitmen, and 286 desperate immigrants swimming to shore after their boat crashed off the coast of Queens, New York. The Snakehead digs into the Chinese human smuggling industry, capturing the stories of families fleeing poverty and persecution and the problematic immigration system that victimizes them at every turn. Nothing in this book is black and white. It shows immigration law and all its players in their complicated and conflicted world.

 

7. Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazaro (Non-Fiction)

 

Picture yourself as a teenager. Now picture yourself as a teenager watching a body gets mangled as it falls under the wheels of a freight train atop which you are riding in hopes of reuniting with your mother in the United States. Migrants do not call the freight line through Mexico “El Tren de la Muerte” (The Train of Death) for nothing. Enrique’s Journey truly takes you on a journey from Honduras to the United States. Along the way, Sonia Nazaro does a brilliant job describing the risks and motivations that have driven thousands of children to head north alone.

 

8. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, by Anne Fadiman (Non-Fiction)

 

You may have never heard of the Hmong, an indigenous group that fled China en mass in the face of persecution, but Anne Fadiman will quickly get you up to speed with her beautiful retelling of Hmong mythology and history. At the heart of her book lies a cultural clash between well-meaning doctors and the well-meaning family of a child with epilepsy. Mistakes and misunderstanding on both sides abound as a child fights for her life.

 

 

9. John Lennon vs. The U.S.A.: The Inside Story of the Most Bitterly Contested and Influential Deportation Case in United States History, by Leon Wildes (Author), Michael Wildes (Non-Fiction)

 

Immigration regulations often intersect with racial and class discrimination, but the story of John Lennon shows how the immigration system can also be abused as a political tool. Through the eyes of Lennon’s attorney, this book recounts President Richard Nixon’s efforts to deport one of the world’s most celebrated musicians. Fair warning: This one gets into the legal weeds and can be a bit academic, but it is an interesting look inside the life of a famous Beatle.

 

 

10. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, by Margriet Ruurs (Children’s Picture Book)

 

 

Social justice books for children can be tricky to do right, but this picture book introduces children to the difficult topic of a Syrian family having to flee their home. It is beautifully illustrated with pieces by the Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr, who creates images of refugees using small stones.

 

 

Elizabeth Gibson is an immigration attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group in New York City. NYLAG is a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to low-income New Yorkers, including immigrant children fleeing violence, consumers being defrauded, tenants facing eviction, victims of workplace, gender and sexual discrimination, and many more vulnerable people who otherwise are forced to navigate the justice system on their own.

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Students Defrauded by For-Profit School Sue US Department of Education

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Toby Merrill, Director, Harvard Law School Project on Predatory Student LendingTina Carr and Yvette Colon had the same goal. They wanted to build careers in the medical field, make a good living and enjoy a better quality of life. They both knew that the gateway to a brighter future would be to attend a good school that had a track record of placing its students in meaningful jobs after graduation and would give them the opportunity to pursue further education down the road. Sanford-Brown Institute convinced them they had found their dream school, but instead plunged them into a nightmare that isn’t over yet.

Sanford-Brown Institute (SBI) is a for-profit college owned by Career Education Corporation (CEC).  SBI officials engaged in outright deception to induce Tina and Yvette to enroll in its vocational programs. Both students found out too late that the school’s programs lacked necessary accreditation, provided woefully inadequate training, and granted credits that were not accepted by other schools. The school also lied to them about its dismal track record in placing students in medical vocations. In the end, SBI left them with crippling debt and the realization that they had been lied to and manipulated so SBI could profit from the student loans taken out in their names.

In March 2015, Tina and Yvette submitted so-called “defense to repayment” applications to the US Department of Education (Department) and Navient, the company that holds Yvette’s loans. These applications invoked their right, explicitly granted in their student loan contracts, to cancellation of their debt if Sanford-Brown had committed fraud in violation of state laws. Despite their clear legal entitlement to loan cancellation, the Department and Navient have refused to consider their defenses, leaving them to struggle—along with tens of thousands of other borrowers whose defenses the Department has ignored—with burdensome and insurmountable student loan debt.

The Department’s failure to respond to students it is charged with protecting is particularly troubling given that in 2013 the Office of the Attorney General of the State of New York (OAG) found that SBI systematically cheated its students. Although SBI representatives cited job placement statistics to Tina of 80 percent, the OAG found that the actual placement rate was only 26.1%. Further, the OAG demonstrated that CEC-operated schools like SBI committed widespread deception concerning programmatic accreditation, and failed to disclose that graduates generally could not transfer credits to legitimate schools. The OAG concluded that these practices violated New York’s consumer protection statutes.

This month, Tina and Yvette took action. They filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department and Navient, asking the Court to recognize their legal right to have their loans cancelled and citing the Department’s failure to act on their borrower defense applications, as well as the applications of thousands of other former students whose debts the Department has the legal obligation to cancel.

The lawsuit comes just as the Department convenes a second negotiated rulemaking committee in as many years on the subject of borrower defense. But it appears that what is happening this year in Washington is nothing more than regulatory theater. The Department has shown that it has no intention of giving cheated students a fair chance to get out of debts they have no legal obligation to repay. Instead, the Department has undertaken a series of convoluted regulatory maneuvers to avoid cancelling their loans or acknowledging their rights. The Department has repeatedly delayed—and in the current rulemaking seems likely to attempt to rewrite—a rule that would have clarified the process for borrowers to seek cancellation of fraudulent student loan debt.

Tina Carr and Yvette Colon did everything right. They followed the rules and submitted substantiated evidence that Sanford-Brown deceived them into taking out loans to get an “education” that would never lead to gainful employment. But now that the rules appear to be changing in favor of the predatory for-profit college industry, and after years of waiting and suffering from damaged credit and the threat of collection on their unlawful loans, they had no choice but to go to court.

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This Year, Honor Our Veterans by Giving Them the Legal Services They Need

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As we celebrate Veterans Day, Congress is debating legislation that would allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to directly fund civil legal aid for veterans. The Legal Services for Homeless Veterans Act would vastly expand access to justice for millions of veterans facing civil legal challenges by making lawyers available at VA medical centers where many veterans receive their healthcare.

I am part of a team of lawyers that provides civil legal aid to veterans through legal clinics conducted onsite at VA hospitals in New York. I have seen the enormous difference legal help can make in veterans’ health. Compared to the civilian population, veterans are at increased risk of homelessness, are more likely to experience disabilities and poor health, and women veterans are more likely to have been victims of sexual assault; legal problems bear on all of these social ills. According to a 2017 VA survey, four of the top ten unmet needs for homeless veterans involve legal problems.

With a staff of just five attorneys funded by private foundations and firms, the LegalHealth Veterans Initiative will serve nearly 1,000 veterans this year in VA medical centers’ behavioral health, geriatrics, and women’s health clinics. Working closely with veterans’ healthcare providers, these “medical-legal partnership” clinics will reduce veteran homelessness by preventing evictions, expand access to needed veterans’ services by upgrading bad paper discharges, and stabilize incomes for veterans with significant health needs.

VA hospitals—part of the fabric of the veteran community, and places where many low-income and disabled veterans receive their healthcare—have been perfect homes for our clinics, and with sufficient funding other VAs could develop similar partnerships. The VA has helped to establish (through non-VA funding) 17 medical-legal partnerships at VA medical centers. But the vast majority of the VA’s 168 medical centers do not have an onsite attorney to help sick veterans.

Veteran

This Veterans Day, Congress should enact the Legal Services for Homeless Veterans Act

Deployed around the country, VA medical-legal partnerships could improve health and reduce homelessness for veterans. A recent report prepared for the New York City Bar Association found that providing attorneys to tenants facing eviction would reduce homelessness, along with medical, shelter, and law enforcement costs—and ultimately save the City money. The case is so compelling, in fact, that the City recently passed a law that mandates providing a free attorneys in housing court for eligible low-income tenants. Yet the potential benefits go well beyond housing: the World Health Organization’s seminal study on the social determinants of health presented clear evidence of the relationship between socioeconomic disadvantage and poor health, and the American Academy of Suicidology lists legal difficulties as events that can increase the risk of suicide.

By reducing veterans’ legal challenges and increasing their incomes—by securing veterans’ benefits, increasing workplace accommodations for veterans with disabilities, and stabilizing family law issues—we can help to improve veterans’ quality of life and impact their health.

To be sure, medical-legal partnerships are not the only way to provide civil legal aid to veterans, and VA funding for veterans legal services would not completely solve the enormous problems of veteran homelessness, benefits backlogs, and suicide. The Act would merely authorize the VA Secretary to fund civil legal aid for veterans, and the Secretary would be free to experiment with different models of service delivery. Moreover, the initial pilot program would likely be small, and additional funds—from city and state governments, private foundations and laws firms, and the federal Legal Services Corporation—would be needed if we are to meet all of the legal needs of veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ motto—taken from President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address—is “[T]o care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” A great deal has been written about our failure to care for our veterans by not providing them the best possible healthcare through the VA health system—and  progress has been made on that front. But we cannot pretend that quality healthcare for veterans in crisis does not include helping with their legal problems. This Veterans Day, Congress should enact the Legal Services for Homeless Veterans Act so that our veterans do not have to face homelessness and health decline as a result of preventable and fixable legal challenges. There could be no greater way to honor those who have served.

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Don’t Send Our Haitian Neighbors Back to a Devastated Homeland

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Haiti was designated for Temporary Protective Status (TPS) following the earthquake that struck the country in January 2010. TPS has been extended every 18 months since then to allow Haitians living in the U.S to remain because it would be unsafe for them to return home. On May 24, then-Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), John Kelly, announced a mere six-month extension citing Haiti’s “progress across several fronts” in its recovery.  Unless DHS reconsiders, TPS for Haiti will be revoked on January 22, 2018 and thousands of Haitians will lose their employment authorization and will be subject to deportation.

The 2010 earthquake took an estimated 300,000 lives, displaced 1.5 million people and led to an ongoing cholera epidemic that has claimed an additional 10,000 lives.  Haiti’s eventual recovery was almost completely reversed by Hurricane Matthew, which struck in 2016 killing over 1,000 Haitians, leaving 1.4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and exacerbating the cholera epidemic.  Just months after Secretary Kelly’s announcement, Haiti took another direct hit from Hurricane Irma that, while not as severe in terms of loss of life, caused the destruction of hundreds of  north coast communities, decimated by high winds and flooding,  and saw the total destruction of 18,000 family farms.

Even prior to 2010, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  According to an overview on Haiti issued in March by the World Bank, the country’s already inadequate economy and infrastructure, devastated by repeated natural disasters, remain extremely vulnerable.   Numerous reports issued by our own government say the same thing:

  • In March, a report issued by US AID noted that “the destruction created by the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew exacerbated an existing lack of adequate health infrastructure…. as well as access to electricity, clean water and sanitation systems”.
  • In May, the US State Department warned US citizens “to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Haiti due to its current security environment and lack of adequate medical facilities…”
  • In July, a Central Intelligence Agency reported that 62% of Haitians are without electricity, more than 2/3 of the labor force does not have formal jobs, and the degree of risk of major infectious diseases is “very high”.

Journalist Jonathan Katz, author of  The Big Truck That Went By:  How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, who was in Haiti during and after the latest earthquake, has said “… if you actually try to construct a picture of what is food security like in Haiti, what infrastructure like in Haiti, what is governance like in 2017, there’s no set of facts that you can string together that would suggest that the country is any more ready to support itself or handle the influx of tens of thousands more people than at any point in the recent past.”

NYLAG attorneys and staff at a rally in NYC

NYLAG attorneys and staff at a rally in NYC

There are currently about 58,000 Haitians living in the U.S. who are protected under TPS.  Over 80% of these are working legally (under TPS), supporting themselves and their families and are sending money back to Haiti.  The July CIA report noted that “remittances are the primary source of foreign exchange, equivalent to more than one quarter of GDP, and nearly double the combined value of Haitian exports and foreign direct investment.”  Revoking TPS protected work authorizations would further devastate the Haitian economy and the lives of families that rely upon these remittances to survive.

The “progress across several fronts” cited by Secretary Kelly as a rationale for prematurely lifting TPS status for Haitians does not take into account the continued dire circumstances in which Haitians find themselves today.  The lack of infrastructure, adequate healthcare, security, food, access to electricity and clean water remain the reality in Haiti today as they did when TPS was first granted.

In a rare recent instance of bipartisanship, ten Democratic and Republican U.S. senators and representatives, led by Florida Senators Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D), have urged DHS to extend TPS for Haiti for 18 months starting January 22, 2018.  In their letter to Acting Secretary Elaine Duke they described TPS as “central to our country’s commitment in providing safe haven to individuals unable to securely return to their home country due to ongoing violence, environmental disasters, or other extraordinary conditions.  Haiti continues to face such conditions.”

The same circumstances exist today that caused the designation of Haiti for TPS over seven years ago.  In keeping with our nation’s tradition of compassion towards those in crisis, I urge the administration to extend TPS protection to the 58,000 people living and working in the U.S.  It is simply not safe for them to return home.

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Five Years After Sandy, Lessons for Today’s Hurricane Victims

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Five years ago Superstorm Sandy – the largest Atlantic storm in history – slammed into the New York City region, upending lives and causing billions of dollars in damages to homeowners, renters, businesses and the federal government. To this day, many people in the areas hardest hit by the storm are still struggling to put their lives back together.

The recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico killed several hundred people and displaced or otherwise affected many thousands more. They are at the beginning of a long and difficult journey that will require courage, resilience, and the support of an array of government and private disaster relief programs. Among these are nonprofit legal services groups like ours that in the last several years have become recognized as a vital social service in the immediate and long-term aftermath of a natural disaster.

When Sandy hit our shores on October 29, 2012 we had no capacity, and no real understanding of what it would take to build a storm response legal team. But within days we were able to confer with legal services organizations on the Gulf Coast who shared what they had learned after Hurricane Katrina. They advised us on how to gear up to help victims unable to afford an attorney to navigate various relief programs, do battle with insurance companies and begin the long process of making repairs.

Five years later, with the support of a cadre of pro bono lawyers from the private bar, we have assisted clients in New York City and on Long island with more than 13,000 legal matters, a number that continues to rise as people still find themselves dealing with local recovery programs, flood insurance claims, rampant contractor fraud and other storm-related problems. Recently, we had the opportunity to pay forward the invaluable support we received from our legal services colleagues in Louisiana and elsewhere by conducting post-disaster legal services training programs for legal services groups in Texas and Florida that reviewed FEMA and the other major federal relief programs, significant potential legal issues, and longer-term recovery issues. (We are still formulating the best way to be of assistance to our peers in Puerto Rico.)

Five years ago Superstorm Sandy slammed into the New York City region. Photo credit: MTA

The back-to-back-to-back devastation we saw in the span of just a few weeks this September is a stark reminder that our coastal areas continue to remain at risk. Due to the billions of dollars of debt the National Flood Insurance Program has incurred in recent years, flood insurance rates have increased and will continue to rise. Homeowners should take advantage of programs and services that can help them prepare now for future floods that are expected to occur due to sea levels rising. FloodHelpNY, for example, is funded by the New York Governor’s Office of Storm and Recovery and provides elevation certificates and flood insurance counseling free-of-charge to inform New York City homeowners about how they can protect their home and finances from future floods.

Recovering from a disaster is time consuming, requires a great deal of work and an ample amount of patience. If it happens to you, here are some key things we have learned that can help make a terrible situation a little more bearable:

Be Organized: Make note of filing deadlines and photograph and videotape damages and retain all records. (Most of the disputes we are handing now, five years out, have to do with missing documentation.) Thoroughly document repair efforts on an on-going basis and keep and organize receipts – your future recovery depends upon it.

Be Proactive: Call FEMA, the Small Business Administration and other agencies early and often to try to resolve problems before they get worse. Don’t rely on the first answer you receive.

Plan for a long haul: Be prepared for substantial insurance and contractor disputes that will cut across multiple interacting issues. Five years after Sandy, we have plenty of clients who are still suing or being sued.

Most important: Find a lawyer versed in disaster legal services. If you cannot afford an attorney, there are several hundred non-profits, pro bono programs, court-based services, and others across the US that may be able to help. www.lawhelp.org is a good resource to help you find one.

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The Equifax Breach Is Bad, But There Are Steps That Can Help

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Kathleen-Krumpter blog cardWhen I first saw the news that Equifax had a data breach, my initial thought was, “This is very bad.” In the days since then, the news has not gotten much better. The ramifications are essentially permanent. Since the breach affected 143 million Americans – more than half of all the adults who live in the United States – I think we need to assume that our most private data is no longer secure.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the vast majority (86%) of instances of identity theft have been related to misuse of existing accounts – credit cards or bank accounts (Victims of Identity Theft, 2014). This means that people with higher annual incomes were more at risk than households with lower incomes. Now that social security numbers, dates of birth and addresses are out there, I believe that there may be an increased risk of identity theft involving new accounts and/or misuse of personal information (including income tax identity theft). This could mean that lower income households will face a higher risk than they have historically as they are less likely to keep an eye on their credit reports and may not file a tax return at all.

There are a number of precautions that we can take to protect ourselves against identity theft.

Financial Counseling 849x565Think about placing a credit freeze on your accounts. This will make it harder for someone to open new credit in your name. This will only work if you place the freeze with all three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Transunion and Experian). If, in the future, you want new credit, you can temporarily lift the freeze at one or all of the agencies by providing the PIN that they will assign to you when you request the freeze. It is imperative that you not lose this PIN and that you secure it. Depending on what state you live in, there are different fees associated with placing, temporarily lifting or permanently removing a credit freeze. Equifax has temporarily waived their fee for any freezes placed before November 21. If you live in New York, it is free to place a credit freeze. You can check your state and the costs associated at Guide to Security Freeze Protection

If you are not going to place a credit freeze on your accounts, place a fraud alert. Unlike with credit freezes, if you place a fraud alert with one agency, they are required to notify the other two agencies. A fraud alert lets creditors know that you may be a victim of identity theft and requires that they take additional steps to ensure that the person requesting the credit is you.

Check your credit reports. Everyone is allowed to request a credit report from each reporting agency once a year. You can do this online at www.annualcreditreport.com. I suggest that you check one agency every four months. Review the report for accuracy and make sure all of the accounts listed are accounts that you opened. If any of the accounts are not yours, dispute it with the credit reporting agency and begin the process for reporting identity theft on www.identitytheft.gov.

Use a password manager. There are many, but two good ones are Last Pass and 1Password. You should also change all of your passwords for all of your financial accounts to something less hackable. These password managers can generate a password that is a random assortment of letters, numbers and special characters, which security experts agree are more difficult to crack.

Anywhere that allows for it, use two factor authentication. Yes, this is a pain. Yes it makes logging in places for the first time difficult. However, it is one more thing that can make it more difficult for someone to steal your identity.

Lastly, file your tax return as early as possible. To date, income tax identity theft has been a relatively small percentage of all instances of identity theft (and has been going down). With the Equifax breach, however, that trend could change.

The Equifax breach is scary and will reverberate for years because we can’t just change our social security numbers like we can a password. With vigilance and taking the above steps, however, we can mitigate any damage and reduce our risk.

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An End for DACA, But Not for Dreamers

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Why are we doing this? Why is the United States government destroying the lives of innocent people who contribute to our communities and to the nation’s social and economic well-being?

Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (commonly called DACA), one of the most positive and successful innovations in recent immigration law.

The concept of DACA was always simple. If you came to the United States undocumented as a child, maybe so young that you do not even remember crossing the invisible line separating “us” and “them,” the country was not going to deport you from your home, from your family, from your life because of something that was not your fault.

In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) granted these young people a reprieve. DACA did not give anyone formal immigration status. Essentially it amounted to a work permit and a promise: DACA recipients would not be targeted for deportation.

Now, DHS has announced that the administration is ending DACA with a six-month delay in enforcement. DHS stated that those with current work permits will be able to continue working until they expire and that renewals will be accepted until October 5, 2017. New applications will not be accepted. However, even before the end of six months, many Dreamers are likely to lose employment because of confused and/or discriminatory employers. Ultimately, the reprieve buys them little more than a few months to fight for new laws to protect Dreamers.

Although NYLAG supports congressional action to give lasting protection to Dreamers as soon as possible, it is dangerous to assume that action will be taken and all will be well. The very impetus of DACA was Congress’ failure to act on the issue. The DREAM Act, intended to address this problem, was introduced in 2001. Sixteen years later Congress is still deliberating on new iterations of the bill in a time when immigration issues are more divisive than ever.

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NYLAG staff rally to defend DACA

DACA came about as a result of decades of failure by Congress to make headway on immigration reform of any sort. It was not a law passed by the legislature, but rather an executive policy to exercise agency discretion in a humane and practical way. DACA came from a grassroots movement of hundreds of thousands of people saying, “I am here. I am your classmate. I am your coworker. I am your neighbor. But for a birth certificate, I am you. ” And at the time, it was not controversial. Two thirds of Americans supported DACA when it was created.

Nearly 800,000 people have applied for and received DACA, including more than 40,000 New Yorkers. The New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) alone has helped with approximately 2,000 cases. Even before DACA, NYLAG pushed the government to find effective ways to use its discretion to protect young immigrants because every day we saw people who were suffering and fighting to live up to their potential.

Over the last five years, DACA Dreamers have thrived. They became teachers and nurses, artists and engineers. Research has shown that immigrants with DACA were more likely than similarly situated immigrants to pursue higher education and find white-collar jobs. They created new jobs and businesses, paid taxes, and helped raise families out of poverty.

For all of its advantages, DACA has always been a limited solution to a much larger problem. Countless children watched their parents deported out of their lives as they moved in with aunts, uncles, and family friends or set out on their own because DACA did not protect their parents. Obama-era programs for parents of DACA recipients got tied up in the courts, and, earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the government was nixing the idea entirely. In addition, while DACA meant work authorization, it did not provide a path to a green card or citizenship. It left a generation living without full rights and in fear that one day someone might take away DACA and leave them with nothing.

Today, Dreamers may feel like that day has come, but New York City and advocates and agencies like ours have no intention of leaving them with nothing. We will continue to fight for them. As we did before DACA, we will defend the rights of all New Yorkers regardless of their immigration status, and we will seek creative solutions for DACA recipients. We also will support any available legal challenges to the repeal of DACA and encourage legislation to protect the Dreamers through congressional action.

DACA recipients

We strongly recommend that all Dreamers speak with an attorney or accredited representative to see if they may be eligible for other forms of immigration relief. It remains unclear exactly what action the government will take at the end of six months, and it would be physically and financially impossible to deport every Dreamer. However, it is important to look for new options well before the end of the six-month period. In particular, anyone who has ever been in immigration court or who has been arrested by the police should speak with an attorney immediately because they may be at higher risk.

As always, it is important to avoid being victimized by fraudulent immigration scams and immigrants should make sure to look for qualified legal representatives.  There are many organizations in New York like NYLAG that provide free legal services for immigration and employment issues.  Dreamers should review information about their rights if they encounter immigration officials, and they should put together a plan for emergency situations. NYLAG and other organizations offer know-your-rights and safety-planning resources.

City agencies and advocates across New York are hard at work to help Dreamers. We are here for you. We are inspired by you. We know you belong here. We share your dream.

Today, we cry with you. Tomorrow, we fight on.

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Relief in Sight for Defrauded Student Borrowers

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Jane Stevens, Co-Director, Special Litigation UnitDanielle Tarantolo, Co-Director, Special Litigation Unit

In August, a federal court in Manhattan approved a historic settlement between the U.S. Department of Education and student loan borrowers who attended the “Wilfred Beauty Academy” in the 1980s and ”˜90s. The settlement brings the possibility of millions of dollars of relief to the approximately 60,000 students who were victimized decades ago by Wilfred””and by the Department’s lax oversight of for-profit schools””and have been suffering ever since.

For-profit schools have exploited students for many years, and continue to do so today, but Wilfred was especially nefarious. It enticed vulnerable people, mostly young women, many with limited English abilities, to enroll in search of a better life, and then flagrantly lied to the Department of Education in order to draw student loan dollars to fund those individuals’ tuitions. Specifically, Wilfred falsely certified to the Department that these students met the eligibility requirements for the student loans, when they did not. (A recent New York Times article paints a stark portrait of the devastating and lasting impact of this fraud on just two of the school’s victims.)

Eventually, the Department wised up to these practices and, along with the Department of Justice, investigated Wilfred for its fraudulent acts. Outcry over rampant violations by schools like Wilfred led Congress in 1992 to enact a statutory remedy: full discharge, or forgiveness of their loans for students who had been “falsely certified”.

When the falsely certified students either graduated from Wilfred (or as often happened, dropped out in frustration), having obtained a useless so-called “education” and with no job prospects at all, they were saddled with debt.  Following Congress’s action, the majority of them were eligible to have their loans fully discharged, but there was a big problem: none of them had any idea this was possible. And the only body with the ability, and the obligation, to notify them””the Department of Education””didn’t. In fact, it did the opposite. Year after year, decade after decade, the Department, and Guaranty Agencies holding the loans, continued to collect on these loans from Wilfred borrowers, including forcibly, by intercepting income tax refunds and garnishing wages.

2017-08August-Telemundo-Interview-Salazar-Class-Action

NYLAG’s Jane Greengold Stevens and two former Wilfred students are featured in a Telemundo interview about this significant settlement.

For years, we had helped individual Wilfred borrowers apply for discharges of their loans. In 2013, as a result of a brief mention in a local TV spot, we received calls from 30 Wilfred students in a short period of time. On behalf of a group of borrowers, we formally demanded that the Department of Education fulfill its duty to notify these individuals of their rights, but the Department refused. We brought Salazar v. Duncan (now called Salazar v. DeVos) in 2014 to prod the Department into action. After several years of hard-fought litigation, the Department has now agreed, through the settlement approved this month, to tell all Wilfred borrowers about the possibility of relief from these debts.

Over the next several months, thousands of letters will go out to these borrowers, along with discharge applications. At the time the Department of Education sends these letters, it will suspend collection on the loans for borrowers not in default. If borrowers in default file applications for discharge within 60 days after receiving the letter, collection will be suspended for them too.  All suspensions will continue until the Department adjudicates the application. By December 9, 2018, the Department will have discharged the loans of all applicants found eligible, and by June, 2019, will have refunded all their loan payments.

The value of this relief cannot be overstated, but it’s an after-the-fact fix.  The real work for the Department is still ahead. As we write this, scores of schools like Wilfred are continuing to defraud student borrowers and the taxpayers, by enticing vulnerable students to enroll and to take out federal student loans, incurring huge debt to pay for worthless educations that they are falsely promised will lead to jobs. Most of the for-profit schools are able to exist only because of the availability of federal student loans.

The Department has the tools to crack down on these abuses, yet does not exercise meaningful oversight””with the result that more and more students will find themselves in the same situation as the Wilfred borrowers: finances ruined, and unable to obtain relief from the government agency that was supposed to protect them.  We urge the Department of Education to fulfill its obligation to students and U.S. taxpayers by refusing to allow sham schools to participate in the federal student loan program, and establishing meaningful borrower protections when it lets bad schools slip through the cracks.

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Tax Scams Are on the Rise, and Recognizing Them Is Getting Harder

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Meghan Hudson blog cardDeath and taxes, they say, are the only certainties in life, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that being victimized by a taxpayer fraud scheme is becoming more common. These lucrative schemes are increasing in number and complexity around the world. Many of the scammers pressure taxpayers to make immediate payments and threaten license suspension, deportation or arrest if they don’t. Their sophisticated methods can be very convincing. This summer we had a client fall prey: she lost $3,500 of her savings to a fraudster via iTunes Gift Cards. She is one of many who were defrauded and certainly won’t be the last.

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service announced in April that it has hired private debt collection companies to collect past taxes (despite two failed attempts at privatizing tax debt collection in the past), adding a new wrinkle and making it more difficult to know what’s real and what’s a scam. And, as reported in the New York Times, a group of Democratic senators have found that the IRS’s private collectors are using tactics that are not just high-pressure, but may be illegal. The article describes training scripts that suggest that debtors use 401(k) funds, home loans and credit cards to pay off their overdue taxes. Pushing taxpayers to the limit like this can have dire consequences. There are other options that we’ll discuss below.

Both fraudsters and IRS contractors have the same goal: they want your money – and they have little incentive to deal fairly with people who legitimately cannot afford to pay their taxes.  The following are steps you can take to determine whether you are dealing with a real IRS debt or a scammer, and what your options are if it’s legit.

Paperwork | file taxes | recognize tax scams

Know the players

There are only four debt collection agencies that can collect IRS debt: CBE, ConServe, Performant and Pioneer. Unlike the scammer, the IRS will inform you first by mail of the tax debt and indicate the debt collector assigned to your case. Only then will you get a call. If you are contacted by anyone who is not affiliated with one of these companies, you are at risk of being defrauded.

Validate the company collecting the debt

If you owe back taxes, you will need to pay them, but make sure you’re really paying your tax debt and not lining the pocket of a scam artist. Keep some things in mind. The IRS-approved debt collection companies will NOT ask for a payment via iTunes or other gift cards, or prepaid debt cards. Payments and checks should only be made be payable to the U.S. Treasury and sent directly to the IRS regardless of what collection agency you are working with. You can also pay online at www.IRS.gov/PayYourTaxBill.

Know your rights

You have the right to work with the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) and to get a financial analysis of your economic situation in order to assess proper payment options. The IRS must take basic living expenses into consideration when determining ability to pay. The average monthly Allowed Living Expenses in New York City, for example, is $3,132 for a single person household. But, keep in mind that private debt collection companies are not required to refer hardship accounts to the TAS and are free to try to collect on debt that would otherwise be uncollectable by the IRS. If you can’t afford the payment, call the TAS yourself or visit their website. A TAS Taxpayer Advocate can put you on a payment plan that is affordable based on your income.

The debt collectors tasked with collecting IRS tax debt must follow the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The IRS must inform you of the debt that will be transferred and to whom. They can’t engage in harassing or abusive practices. To make a complaint about a private collection agency or report misconduct by its employee, call the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) hotline at 800-366-4484 or visit www.tigta.gov.

Know what you owe

You have a right to know how much you owe in taxes and how the amount was calculated. You can call the TAS at 800-829-1040 or go online to https://taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov/ and create a Secure Access Account on the IRS website. In the tax account tools page you can see 18 months of payment history, the balance for each tax year that you owe and the payoff amount. Don’t ask the person on the phone to validate it, make sure it’s correct with the IRS.

Analyze your actual ability to pay

While you are sorting out your situation – and your options, do not agree to a payment plan that you can’t afford. Do not live off your credit cards or withdraw money from your retirement savings to pay off the tax debt. (This is often taxed as income and if you’re under 59 ½ years old there are additional ramifications, such as early withdraw fees.)

According to the same New York Times article, a recent analysis found that nearly a quarter of the accounts involved taxpayers with below-poverty level wages, and more than half were taxpayers with incomes of less than 250 percent of the poverty level. If you have an economic hardship, the TAS can place you into a status known as Currently Not Collectible which means that the IRS will stop trying to collect the debt from you and won’t garnish wages – though your tax debt will continue to accumulate interest and penalties. The TAS can also approve Offer in Compromise plans, an agreement to settle the debt for less than the full amount. It’s better to work with a Taxpayer Advocate to get on a payment plan that allows you to still cover your basic needs. I suggest you create a budget before creating a payment plan and see how much you can afford to pay. If you don’t qualify for either program you can work with a TAS advocate to create a longer installment plan so that your monthly payments are affordable.

In summary, when it comes to calls related to tax debt don’t be bullied into making an immediate payment. Validate the debt and take a realistic look at your income. If you indeed owe the debt, you will need to pay it or a portion of it. However, make sure that you are paying a reasonable amount based on your income and that you’re not living on borrowed money or surviving solely on ramen noodles to make it happen. And don’t hesitate to reach out to your politicians and demand they promote policies that protect your rights. Private debt collection programs have historically wasted federal resources and violated consumer rights.

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