A Door Opens for Deserving Immigrants

all in for relief red web

Tonight President Barack Obama used his legal authority to take sweeping action to overhaul our nation’s broken immigration system. There are a number of provisions in the plan, but there is a clear theme: we will keep families together by easing the threat of deportation for hardworking immigrants, and focus our resources on removing those immigrants who pose a real threat to national security. This is welcome news for all of us who, in the face of continuing inaction by Congress, have been calling on the President to do everything within his power to improve how immigration laws are enforced.

According to a briefing by US Citizenship & Immigration Services, delivered shortly before the President’s address, the plan will provide protection from deportation for an estimated 5 million unauthorized immigrants.

The provision with the largest impact will provide relief to the parents of children who are US citizens and Legal Permanent Residents. Eligible parents must have been living in the United States for at least five years, pass a criminal background check, and pay income taxes.

The plan also expands Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy introduced in 2012 that provides temporary relief to immigrants who were brought to the US as young children. Specifically: the date for when an immigrant must have arrived in the US has been moved from June 2007 to January 1, 2010; the maximum age limit (31 years as of June 2012) has been eliminated; and the duration of a recipient’s temporary work authorization has been increased from two years to three years.

While not a pathway to full legal status or public benefits, those who qualify will no longer live under the threat of deportation, and will be entitled to receive employment authorization and other benefits including Social Security numbers and state-issued identification. This will remove a crippling barrier for many hardworking immigrants who have been forced to work under the table, often for illegally low wages and in substandard conditions. Most importantly, thousands of families who have lived in fear can now be assured that parents and children will not be torn apart.

The plan includes a number of other welcome steps that will shift enforcement emphasis away from deporting immigrants with strong community ties and no criminal records by eliminating a controversial Homeland Security Program that rapidly pushes immigrants into detention and deportation, and by strengthening policy guidance for immigration authorities, and implementing immigration court reforms.

NYLAG immigration staff eagerly awaiting the President's announcement.

NYLAG immigration staff eagerly awaiting the President’s announcement.

Every day, immigration attorneys have had the unfortunate task of telling an unauthorized immigrant that she or he is not eligible for any form of immigration relief. Here is one such story: Cristina came to the US from the Dominican Republic in 2000 on a temporary visa to help care for an elderly aunt with chronic health problems. She stayed on after her visa expired and settled in Brooklyn, where she met her future husband, who is also undocumented. The couple had two daughters, now 10 and 8. In 2009, Cristina’s husband was seized by immigration authorities on his way home from a visit with relatives in New Jersey. He was deported soon after. Separated from her husband, and desperate to avoid being deported, Cristina has lived a life of fear, isolation and poverty, constantly worried that she will be discovered and taken away from her daughters. For the last seven years she has cleaned houses for a living to avoid being asked for the working papers she does not have.

Thanks to President Obama’s plan, Cristina is now eligible, as the parent of US citizens, for protection from deportation and can be granted work authorization, giving her the opportunity to find a better paying job and support her family.

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The implications of the President’s action for New York City’s immigrants, and those of us who serve them, are enormous. An estimated 300,000 City residents may be eligible for relief. There will be a several month period of preparation before these measures take effect. During what is sure to be a confusing time for a vulnerable population, our priority now is to provide clear, consistent information that can help people prepare, understand their rights, and avoid immigration fraud. We look forward to working with City and State agencies, elected officials, community organizations and funders to create a Citywide initiative that will help deserving immigrants safely and efficiently navigate this new legal landscape. Click here for more information about NYLAG’s Administrative Relief readiness plan.

This is a great day for millions of people, and especially for New York – a city built on the dreams of generations of immigrants. But the promise of comprehensive reform remains tragically unfulfilled for many. Only Congress can take the action necessary to alleviate the hardships suffered by the millions of immigrants not touched by what happened today. 

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

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Thank you, Esther

Esther Peterseil shares her story with NYLAG staff.

Esther Peterseil (rear center).

Last week a number of us at NYLAG had the opportunity to hear Esther Peterseil, a survivor of the Holocaust, tell her story. Esther is a longtime NYLAG volunteer who has devoted much of her life to making sure the story of the Holocaust is never forgotten. I felt compelled to help her in this task, by sharing her story with you.

I hope that Esther will forgive me for telling you that she is almost 90 years old – although if you met her you would never think so. She sat in our conference room, ramrod straight, beautifully dressed, her hair perfect, her glasses perched on her nose, as she read to us plainly about the horrific details of all that she has endured, and all that her family suffered.

Esther was almost 13 years old in 1939 when the Germans invaded her small town in Western Poland, one of the first to be occupied. She and her family lived in hiding in a tunnel they created between their apartment and the building next door. For two years, they lived in darkness. Eventually they were discovered and sent to the town’s ghetto. Her older brother and sister were taken away immediately. The rest of the family worked in sweatshops making uniforms for Nazi soldiers. “We were useful,” she said.

In August of 1943, Esther, her parents, her younger sister Bala, and an older brother were shipped in a boxcar to Auschwitz and then marched to Birkenau. At the moment of their forced separation from each other, Esther’s mother told her that she must take good care of Bala, who had a bad heart as a result of rheumatic fever; she must make sure they both survived; and she must never stop telling the story of what happened to them. Esther never saw her parents again. Her mother was 49 years old when she was killed. Esther did take care of Bala, risking her own life in the process, and both girls did survive the Holocaust, somehow enduring Birkenau and the infamous death march.

Esther and Bala returned to their hometown in Poland and reunited with their one brother who had survived. They were the only ones out of a family of eight children left alive. But any joy at their homecoming was short-lived. One day, Esther greeted a woman in the market who had been the family’s housekeeper for many years before the war, almost a member of their family. The woman looked at her coldly and said she had expected that Esther would be dead by now. It was then Esther knew that Poland was no longer her home.

Bala, whose health had steadily declined, died in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Austria. Esther and her future husband, whom she met in the DP camp, were not able to immigrate to Palestine, eventually finding their way to New York. But Esther, ever true to her mother’s wishes, was able to arrange for Bala to be buried in Israel, the only place she would accept as home for her beloved sister.

Esther and her husband had two children, who have blessed them with 12 grandchildren. When each grandchild turned 14, Esther took them to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Esther has spent her life telling her story, to young people in particular, as she did with us last week. She also spends her time volunteering for several nonprofits, including NYLAG.

As the Jewish holiday season draws to a close, I share Esther’s story with you. Not just the story of a woman who has lost so much and suffered so greatly, but also the story of a woman of great courage who is a fighter, a survivor who will not be silenced, and a person who had the resilience to live her life with great joy among family and friends she cherishes. A woman to celebrate. Thank you, Esther.

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

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Domestic Violence Awareness Year

Twenty-seven years ago, October was designated Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM) as a way to build public consciousness of a pervasive but hidden social problem. Every October, NYLAG and other advocates across the nation who work to end violence against women, rally to raise awareness through special events and community outreach. But this year, it feels different. The firestorm reaction to violent acts committed by NFL players and a federal judge, and the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, has kept domestic violence in the news – and in our conversations – for months now. I think that is a very good thing.

Purple, the symbolic color of domestic violence awareness, symbolizes courage, persistence, honor and the commitment to ending domestic violence.

NYLAG is “going purple” this October; the color has historically been the color tied to domestic violence advocacy.

Domestic violence feeds on silence. Victims keep quiet and remain with their batterers for many reasons. Fear of retaliatory physical violence is certainly one of them, but there are others. Economic, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse are often more subtle forms of control, but can dramatically affect a victim’s ability to break free. And despite the fact that witnessing domestic violence has a significant negative impact on children, many women stay with abusive partners for their kids’ sakes, determined to keep their families together at all costs.  The #WhyIStayed hashtag, created after the Ray Rice video surfaced, provides many more pointed reasons from women who know firsthand.

NYLAG staff show support and spread awareness with purple DVAM bracelets.

Help spread the word. Share this blog post on Facebook and/or Twitter and click on the picture to give us your mailing address to receive a free bracelet.

So we begin DV Awareness Month with a head start. I propose that we keep the momentum going. Learn about domestic violence. Talk about it with your children – make sure they are educated too. Challenge your own preconceived notions – such as blaming the victim for staying, rather than blaming the abuser for abusing, or the systems that fail to hold him or her accountable. Be alert to the signs, both physical and behavioral, that can be red flags of an abusive relationship. If you are concerned that someone is being abused, ask. And if the answer is yes, provide emotional support, listen and show you care.  Help her, or him, find safety and a chance at a life free of abuse. If you don’t know how to start, resources are available from the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.

Domestic violence isn’t something that happens somewhere else. It lives right here, in our midst. It lives next door, in the office or the cubicle down the hall, among friends whose lives we think we know, and perhaps inside our own homes. Let’s make this the year we turn awareness into action.

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

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New York State Stands Up for People with Disabilities

DisabilityYesterday Governor Cuomo signed an executive order creating the New York Employment First Commission. The members of the Commission, including the Governor’s Deputy Secretaries for Health, Civil Rights and Human Services, are tasked with developing recommendations for how the State can make “competitive, integrated employment” the first option when considering supports and services for people with disabilities. The bottom line is to significantly increase employment of New Yorkers with disabilities.

This is welcome news for those living with disabilities, but also for employers and our state’s economy. The low employment rate for individuals with disabilities who want to work is a national travesty. Being unemployed lowers self-esteem, shrinks the pool of talented and motivated workers, increases costs for family members and taxpayers, and results in decreased productivity across the State. At NYLAG we are deeply committed to building a diverse workforce, and we have been richly rewarded by the invaluable contributions and amazing spirit of our colleagues with disabilities.

The Governor has set tentative goals of a 5% increase in the employment rate and a 5% decrease in the poverty rate among this population. Accomplishing these objectives will not be easy – but the employment challenges faced by New Yorkers with disabilities demand that we try. Here are the facts:

  • One million working-age New Yorkers (18-64 years) have a disability.
  • The employment rate for a person with a disability is 31.2% v. 72% for someone without a disability.
  • 250,000 people with disabilities are living on government benefits.
  • The poverty rate for working-age people with disabilities living in the community is more than twice that of those without a disability. (28.6% v. 12.3%)

The good news is that we have role models in other states, which are already beginning to make strides. Wisconsin, for example, has positioned employment for people with disabilities as an integral part of its overall economic and workforce development plan. Governor Scott Walker, who included comments on this topic in his State of the State address, is committed to a long term employer education and public awareness campaign. The State is investing in seed programs to provide financial incentives for employers who hire people with disabilities, and provides disability employment training grants. As a result, in little more than a year, Wisconsin has increased – by over 1,000 –  the number of people with disabilities placed in jobs making over $12 an hour – and is maintaining very high retention rates.

Unfortunately, the same commitment to the rights and dignity of those with disabilities is not apparent in Washington. On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate again failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), a United Nations treaty that would extend disability rights to people around the world. Since CRPD was developed based on our own Americans with Disabilities Act (passed almost 25 years ago) this is difficult to fathom.

It appears that, once again, our states have been left to fill the legislative void in Washington. That makes me doubly proud of Governor Cuomo’s action.

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

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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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