Testimony by New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG)

before the NYC Council Committee on Immigration regarding:

Preliminary Budget Hearing – Immigration

March 22, 2017

Chair Menchaca, Council Members, and staff, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Immigration Committee about the FY18 budget.  My name is Jin Sun Park, and I am a Supervising Attorney at 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.

We appreciate the opportunity to testify to the Immigration Committee regarding the FY18 budget.  With great budgetary uncertainty on the federal level, it is more important this year than ever for the City Council and the Mayor’s Administration to ensure that the budget provides critical services to low-income New Yorkers, including immigrants.

The New Immigration Landscape

            Since the Presidential election in November, immigrants around the country have been rightfully frightened about their futures under the new Administration.  In New York City, the results of the election had a profound effect on the lives of millions of immigrants, many undocumented.  Reports of increased immigration enforcement tactics, and rumors of such, as well as anti-immigrant rhetoric have made many immigrants afraid to access City and other services, such as hospitals, courts, and even schools.  Immigrants who have lived peacefully in New York City for decades are terrified that they will face deportation and be torn from their families.  The chilling effect of the policies that are being put forward by the new Administration will have an enormous impact on the lives of immigrant families, and many are seeking legal services to understand their rights, determine whether they have a viable path to status, and plan for the safety of their families.

Unfortunately, the preliminary budget released by the President earlier this month made clear that he plans to stand by his campaign promises to significantly reduce the social safety net for the most vulnerable, low-income Americans, including immigrants.  Several funding streams vital to immigration legal services are at risk of enormous cuts or even elimination, including the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program, the Legal Services Corporation, and funding through the Violence Against Women Act.  CSBG funding, in particular, is integral to immigration legal services in New York City, as millions of dollars from this pool go to City-based legal services providers through the Human Resources Administration.  With the potential elimination of federal funding to provide these services, immigration legal services must be a priority for the City’s FY2018 budget.  Immigration legal services keep families together, and allow those with a potential path to citizenship to live in the United States safely and free of constant fear.  With a large immigrant population so integral to the fabric of its communities, New York City must be a leader among major cities in the provision of significant and sustained funding for free legal services for immigrants.

Immigration Legal Services in New York City

            NYLAG is proud to partner with the City Council and several City agencies – the Human Resources Administration, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, the Department of Youth & Community Development, and NYC Health + Hospitals – to provide legal services to New York City’s immigrant population.  Through its City-funded immigration work, NYLAG uses its unique community model and integrates itself into communities, gaining the trust of potential clients through close partnerships with local community-based organizations, hospitals, libraries, schools, and other trusted entities.

As part of the City Council’s Key to the City Initiative, NYLAG screens hundreds of immigrants in their own communities each year, determining whether they are potentially eligible for immigration relief, providing them with Know Your Rights and safety planning information, and warning them about immigration fraud.  Despite a significant rise in the level of fear in immigration communities, we are pleased to report that immigrants have continued to come to the monthly Key to the City legal clinics in large numbers, which we believe is due to the events being located within immigrant communities in concert with trusted organizations, including the City Council and the New York Immigration Coalition.  Large-scale clinics such as Key to the City are vital to ensure that as many people as possible are screened for potential relief; in fact, in FY2016, approximately 22% of clients screened at Key to the City events turned out to be eligible for a path to citizenship.  NYLAG is grateful to the City Council for including $2.6 million in the FY2017 budget to expand the Immigrant Opportunities Initiative and ensure that large and small providers throughout the five boroughs have the ability to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services to immigrant communities.  This funding is necessary to provide a range of services to immigrants in need, and allows NYLAG to take on some of the cases it sees at Key to the City events for full representation.

The ActionNYC and NYCitizenship programs, both run through the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, have allowed NYLAG to expand its community model even further.  Through ActionNYC, NYLAG has an attorney stationed at the Arab-American Association of New York, providing services to clients of that agency and immigrants throughout the Bay Ridge area.  The NYCitizenship program gives NYLAG the ability to provide naturalization services to a significant number of immigrants each year through public libraries in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens.  When immigrants have the option of receiving quality legal services in their own neighborhoods, they are much more likely to seek them out.

Over the past several years, both the City Council and the Mayor’s Administration have

recognized the importance of funding legal services for immigrants in the healthcare setting.  Through the Council’s Immigrant Health Initiative and the ActionNYC in NYC Health + Hospitals program funded by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, NYLAG assists immigrants with chronic and serious health needs obtain immigration status in order to acquire the health insurance they need.  By providing services that allow immigrants to achieve PRUCOL status, NYLAG has greatly expanded the pool of immigrants who are on the path to citizenship and able to access needed healthcare.  Because NYLAG has been working closely with hospitals, including all H+H public hospitals, for many years, we were able to hit the ground running with expanding our immigration services and training healthcare personnel to recognize patients in need of immigration services and immediately refer them to NYLAG for assistance.  Undocumented immigrants who may not otherwise contact an immigration attorney are introduced to NYLAG through a trusted doctor or other medical personnel.

NYLAG applauds the City for understanding the need for community-based immigration legal services, and encourages the City Council and the Mayor’s Administration to consider the importance of serving immigrants in their own communities in any funding model.

Immigration Legal Services Needs Going Forward

The City has substantially increased funding of legal services over the last several years, and NYLAG is grateful that building immigration legal services programs has been a focus for both the City Council and the Mayor’s Administration.  Given the actions and promises of the new federal Administration, however, the time is now to significantly increase funding for immigration civil legal services, especially for complex immigration cases.

NYLAG has seen incredible turnout at community-based Know Your Rights events, and we know that immigrants who previously felt safe have already started coming out to large-scale clinics such as Key to the City in droves to find out if they have relief options.  Through dozens of Know Your Rights events and clinics held since the election, NYLAG attorneys have observed a shift in focus on the part of immigrants in attendance from solely relief options to a growing emphasis on safety planning.  Undocumented immigrant parents are often terrified that they will be separated from their U.S. citizen children, and need information about how to plan in the event that they are deported.  Most immigration legal services providers, including NYLAG, do not have the capacity or resources to provide the assistance these families need to safely and prudently plan for the future.  Funding is necessary to allow legal services providers to provide comprehensive services to those in need, many of whom have never met an attorney.

The current spotlight on immigration has come with one positive effect: NYLAG has seen an outpouring of pro bono volunteers who want to work on immigration cases.  In response to the private bar’s desire to help with these cases, NYLAG developed an Immigration Bootcamp training series for attorneys inexperienced in immigration law, but legal services providers will need to actively supervise these cases due to the complexity of immigration law and the potential consequences of making a mistake.  With the federal Administration taking an actively hostile position on immigrants and promising to deport millions, the infrastructure of knowledgeable and skilled legal services providers needs to be fortified and expanded now to ensure screening and legal services for as many people as possible.

For the clients who have reached out for legal assistance since the election, and for the hundreds of thousands in communities who have yet to receive a legal screening, increased funding is needed immediately to support complex immigration legal work.  While NYLAG is a proud partner in programs such as ActionNYC and NYCitizenship, these programs only allow a limited scope of services, many of which are more “straightforward” case types, such as naturalization.  There is no question that there are thousands of immigrants in New York City who require legal services in order to naturalize and receive the myriad benefits of doing so, including the critical right to vote, but the we know that the area of most rapidly increasing need in this time of crisis is in complex case work, including removal defense work.

New and increased funding is needed specifically to assist those undocumented immigrants we have been seeing in increasing numbers at clinics and other community events, who are potentially eligible for a complex form of immigration relief, such as asylum for those who will be persecuted for returning to their home countries, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) for children abandoned or neglected by a parent, U and T Visas for crime and trafficking victims, and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petitions for victims of domestic violence.  Certain populations are far more vulnerable now in light of the Administration’s enforcement priorities. Undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for less than two years are subject to expedited removal; these cases must be handled quickly and with extreme care, as these individuals have limited due process rights.  Since the election, NYLAG has seen a sharp uptick in the number of these vulnerable clients who need assistance to file time sensitive affirmative asylum applications to meet the one year filing deadline. For complex affirmative cases, having representation can mean the difference between getting relief with USCIS and having to defend their case in removal proceedings before an immigration judge.

NYLAG has also been seeing an increase in the number of clients with final orders of removal who require urgent defensive action to prevent deportation, and is expecting the numbers to continue rising as immigration enforcement tactics become more aggressive. Without increased access to legal representation, these vulnerable individuals are at an even greater risk of falling prey to notarios and immigration scams. For example, at a recent clinic, a NYLAG attorney met Juan and Maria, the undocumented parents of a severely autistic U.S. citizen son, Ricardo, who requires near constant medical care.  Juan and Maria came to NYLAG after putting their faith, and their money, in a private attorney who filed fraudulent applications for them with the promise of a 10 year green card that put them into removal proceedings. NYLAG is now representing them to keep their family together and ensure that Ricardo continues to receive the medical care he needs.

Unfortunately, even programs like the Council-funded Immigrant Opportunities Initiative, which allows for a much more expansive range of case types than some of the more narrowly focused programs, only provide a case rate of $750-$1,000, keeping many providers from being able to meet the demand for complex case work.  The true cost of time and resources for complex cases is many thousands of dollars, as these cases can stretch for years and attorneys can spend hundreds of hours on a single case, particularly with exceedingly complex cases such as those of Adults with Children.  NYLAG currently turns away hundreds of immigrants with potential complex relief each year due to lack of resources.  While New York City has a strong immigration legal services infrastructure, there is simply not enough capacity to handle the number of cases in a City with such large immigrant communities, let alone those we anticipate coming over the next months and years.

We expect to see sharp increases in the number of complex cases in the near future as immigrants come out of the shadows and look for potential relief in the face of amplified enforcement, rhetoric, and budget cuts, and increased funding in the FY2018 New York City budget will give us the ability to take on more of them.  Further, increasing the case rate on current funding streams would allow organizations to provide more complex services to clients immediately.

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