A long list of public services are teetering on the edge due to New York State’s budget freeze and nonprofit organizations that cater to immigrants are feeling the impact.
New York State has suspended its contracts with nonprofits supporting immigrants, leaving state-funded programs that provide support to these communities in the criminal justice system at risk, which could ultimately increase deportations and the time immigrants spend in detention. Nonprofits say they were notified of the budget cuts around the third week of June.
Established in 2017, The Liberty Defense Project, a public-private partnership with a diversity of state funding that provides immigrants access to legal services, could be one of many programs in danger of being crippled by budget cuts. It is considered the first and only program in the country that guarantees an attorney for immigrants facing deportation.
In addition to the uncertain finances ahead, multiple nonprofits, already anxious on how they can maintain spending, say they still have not received contract reimbursements from last year’s budget. And for those that need to lay off staff, state-funded cases don’t go with them. Organizations remain obligated to complete cases, even if they don’t have the funding for them, says Elise de Castillo, executive director of CARECEN, a nonprofit providing legal assistance to immigrants in the Long Island region.
“It’s a cash flow problem,” said de Castillo, noting that the unclear timeline of when liquidity will return makes it impossible to come up with a contingency plan, leaving organizations that don’t have multi-million dollar war chests especially vulnerable. “For smaller nonprofits, it can signal not just fiscal catastrophe, but the end of the organization.”
State funding touches every aspect of immigration services, including Temporary Protected Status, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA), and applying for citizenship, notes de Castillo.
“There is no information on if you will still get paid on contracts but we are still required to do the work,” said Camille Mackler, executive director of the Immigrant Advocates Response Coalition (I-ARC), a nonprofit network of more than 80 legal service providers and an immigration law training and policy institute. She remains hopeful that their contracts will be honored.
A coalition of 78 organizations expressed “grave concern” about payment freezes and underscored the urgency of maintaining funding for the New York Immigration Family Unity Project and the Liberty Defense Project, as well as its $10 million allocation to the budget for the 2021 fiscal year.
“We have been advised by state officials that payments for completed and ongoing work as well as contracting to secure continued services in the coming year are on hold,” wrote the signees.
The latest federal stimulus package currently does not include funding for state and local governments but remains to be approved. If that funding doesn’t come through, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state may have no choice but to cut billions of dollars from its budget. The state is reluctant to dole out funds without a guarantee of federal dollars on the way.
Freeman Kloppott, the spokesman for the state’s Division of the Budget, also blamed the federal government for the budget cuts.
“The reality is the Federal government is failing all of us as it has yet to act and deliver the resources states need to contend with incredible revenue losses, which amount to $61 billion over four years for New York,” said Kloppott. “Federal inaction has already forced the State to reduce spending by $4 billion by freezing hiring, pay raises and new contracts, and holding back a portion of payments which has impacted services, programs, and agency operations in addition to our nonprofit partners. We hope our nonprofit partners will continue to call on the federal government to act.”
The New York Immigration Family Unity Project, which is partly funded by both New York City and New York State, makes New York the first and only state in the country to have a public defender system for immigrants in detention and facing deportation. Immigrants are not entitled to legal representation in immigration court under federal law. The city’s funding for immigrant services remains uncut.
According to a report from the office of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, one-third of immigrant New Yorkers are vulnerable to losing their job, compounding the looming uncertainty.
There are over one hundred nonprofits that provide immigration legal services. Luckily, there have been limited cuts to immigration legal services’ contracts with New York City.
Mackler says immigration courts have stopped hearing non-detained cases and that she has heard of increased arrests at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.
Even before the pandemic, immigration attorneys had been heavily overburdened. Cases in immigration court take years to process and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, including limiting access to asylum and increasing the number of arrests, from President Trump’s administration, have only heightened the difficulties.
“It always has been a stressful job, the last few years in particular,” says Mackler, citing increased difficulties of asylum seekers obtaining work authorizations as one of many examples as well as the important balance of properly serving clients without overextending yourself as an attorney.
“Immigration is always complicated but immigration under the Trump administration is nightmarish, to say the least,” says de Castillo. “A case that used to take, let’s say 50 hours of representation, is now taking 150. How do you do that if you have half the staff to do the work?”
Fewer attorneys available to represent detained immigrants would likely mean more deportations and increased time spent in detention. Mackler notes that lawyers have already been laid off at some nonprofits and that freshly barred attorneys who normally would have been hired are left out waiting in the cold.
Donations that could normally be relied upon from funders have taken a hit as well.
“Because their own business interests have been jeopardized, they’re holding off on making those commitments. Galas are making a fraction of what they were making before,” notes de Castillo.
The role of an immigration attorney is much more than legal representation, as they help detainees navigate through coded government language, public benefits, and even transportation.
“Every attorney recognizes that you can’t only recognize legal care. You have to address all of their needs,” says Shayna Kessler, senior planner at the VERA Institute of Justice, a national organization that does a broad range of criminal justice work.
Immigrants in rural areas of the state with predominantly white populations may be particularly vulnerable, as they tend to be “hidden in those communities” and are “much less trusting”, says Mackler.
Kessler remains hopeful that the federal relief funds will be delivered to fill the hole in the state’s budget.
“This is good public policy. This is a strong investment. It invests in ensuring that families can remain together and that communities can remain stable and it stands up to the federal administration’s attacks on immigrant communities.”