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Every Year, There’s a Struggle to Fund Legal Services for New York State Immigrants

For four years, advocates had to fight to get the Liberty Defense Project added to the state budget.

Every year, for the past four years, the fight over the New York State budget includes a tiny portion to support legal services for immigrants.

Considering this year’s budget is $177 billion, $10 million may not seem like much. But to Gregory Dewan, the deputy executive Director at the Hiscock Legal Aid Society in Syracuse, that means he can keep all eight of the immigration lawyers he has on staff — and continue giving 372 migrants representation to fight their deportation. To lose even one lawyer could mean some 50 migrants would have no one to guide them through the intimidating immigration process.

Now Dewan and other legal providers across New York can continue their work, thanks to the passage of funding for the Liberty Defense Project, a program which benefits immigrants living in underserved areas upstate. After a tense few days, where advocates furiously pressed lawmakers into making a decision, the package was included in the New York state budget.

“In the grand scheme of even a drastically reduced budget, $10 million is nothing,” said Camille Mackler, Director of Immigration Legal Policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, which advocates for organizations providing legal services through LDP. “When you think of what it means and what it provides, it’s just astounding that it got to this point where we had to fight.”

She acknowledged that the move to cut funding to the Liberty Defense Project (LPD) was a reaction to the tenuous economic circumstances facing the state because of the rapid spread of COVID-19, where New York has been the hardest hit in the nation. But given that the federal stimulus package will leave undocumented migrants out of any relief, that put more pressure on lawmakers to provide what Mackler described as a “lifeline” to those in need.

Catalina Cruz, a New York State assemblywoman from Queens, spearheaded the effort behind the scenes and made public pushes to get this funding passed. Cruz was relieved, especially for the people who needed it most. “For lots of those people this is the only thing that has given them hope, the chance to stay here with their families,” she said.

Cruz used to develop immigrant policies for Gov. Cuomo’s office when she was the director of the Exploited Workers Task Force, and she had written the framework for the Liberty Defense Project before it first passed in 2017. This has always been a priority of hers. 

“We were making sure that there was noise made around this issue,” said Cruz, “because the reality was that if this disappeared, we could no longer have the audacity to call ourselves a pro-immigrant state. Because the one thing we had that was helping people, we were taking away.”

Unlike in criminal courts, immigrants appealing for their right to stay in the country are not guaranteed a lawyer. And detained immigrants are even less likely to be able to win their release. Because of the byzantine process, immigrants with access to legal counsel were ten times more likely to win the right to remain in the United States, according to Shayna Kessler, a senior planner for the Vera Institute for Justice.

Vera helped create the New York Family Unity Project, which has expanded beyond New York to be one of the largest public defender programs in the United States. Last year, the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) provided legal services to 1,000 immigrants in New York State. The project provides free legal services to detained immigrants, centered around, Rochester, Albany, Westchester County and Syracuse. 

Since its establishment in 2017, lawyers and advocates involved with the Liberty Defense Project said that they have been unsure whether funding for the services they provide to detained migrants will be included in the state’s budget. Cruz said this was partly down to disputes about who would fund the initiative.

At first, the Liberty Defense Project was funded by the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), an autonomous group of Democratic members of the New York State Senate that often caucused separately from other members of their party. The next year, 2018, the cost was split between the New York State assembly and the senate.

“Then the year after, it became a game of ‘I’m not funding this,’” Cruz said. 

The Governor’s office funded it in 2019. The climate of indecision was exacerbated this year, said Cruz, by a shortage of state funds and the spread of the current pandemic. Cruz said she began to worry last Saturday when the money for LPD still hadn’t been included in the governor’s budget proposal.  

In the final days of negotiations, advocates waged an intense campaign to get the funding, blasting messages on social media, making phone calls, sending emails and hosting a press conference on Zoom. It worked. That frantic push got the Liberty Defense Project added to Gov. Cuomo’s budget by Thursday morning. Lawmakers eventually passed the budget at 3:30 a.m., on Friday.

Now that there is a one-year reprieve, small legal organizations like the one in Syracuse are already worrying about the following year. 

“That’s a very difficult scheme to operate under as an agency, because the last thing you want to do is take on a large case load and then have the funding end and not be able to finish out those cases for the clients that you have,” said Dewan.

In January, with the prolonged timing of immigration cases in mind, Senator Brad Hoylman and Cruz introduced the Access to Representation Act, which sought to guarantee that immigrants facing deportation had a lawyer to guide them through their case.

Though not yet passed, the bill would provide stability for organizations such as the Hiscock Legal Aid Society and the Erie County Volunteer Lawyers Project to continue representing migrants in need, without the yearly battle to guarantee a consistent source of funding.

Liz Robbins contributed reporting.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said that the Liberty Defense Project funding package was included in the New York State Senate in Albany. It was included in Governor Cuomo’s budget, which then both the Assembly and Senate passed late Thursday evening.

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