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Government-Funded Immigration Attorneys Proposed for New York

Federal Plaza building, home to one of New York's immigration courts.

The Access to representation Act (S81A/A1961) would give all individuals in New York the right to legal counsel in immigration court, funded by the government. The legislation would ensure that immigrants had representation in deportation proceedings, but also in any other legal proceedings that were crucial and related to deportation defense. Currently, access to immigration attorneys is not guaranteed in immigration court proceedings.

New York has been a pioneering state in providing funding for immigration court proceedings–but that funding is not guaranteed year to year, advocates note, and depends on the state budget.

Various studies in the past several years have shown that having access to counsel increases an individual’s chance of being granted immigration relief. Immigrants in detention who had legal representation were twice as likely as unrepresented immigrants to obtain immigration relief, and immigrants with legal counsel, who were not detained, were almost five times more likely to be granted immigration relief, according to a 2016 report from the American Immigration Council.

Also Read: How Attorneys Wrangle New York’s Wildly Unpredictable Immigration Court Schedule

“In this legislative session, Albany must take action to equip New Yorkers with more legal resources and the right to representation. This is a generational moment for our state to seize a national leadership role and reimagine justice for immigrant communities by strengthening legal services funding,” Assembly Member Catalina Cruz, a Queens Democrat, and State Senator Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, wrote in a joint February Op-Ed in City Limits. Both are sponsoring the bill. 

“With this investment, we are promoting family unity, community stability, and an equitable recovery for all of New York,” they said.

The legislation is currently pending in the Senate Finance Committee, in the Assembly Codes Committee.

The New York State Budget, passed by the legislature in April, included historic funding for immigrants needing legal representation. New York increased its immigration funding to $20 million, the first increase in such funding since 2017, Annie Chen,  the program director for the Safety and Fairness for Everyone Initiative at Vera’s Center on Immigration and Justice, said in a statement at the time. But during the pandemic, the need for immigration legal services has continued to grow, Chen said.

“With so many New Yorkers still needing this life-saving legal assistance, this funding is a significant investment that must be followed swiftly by additional steps toward systemic reform, including passing the Access to Representation Act so every New Yorker has a chance to fight their case fairly in court and freely with the support of their communities and families,” Chen said.

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio is a Report for America Corps Member who covers immigration for Documented, where she focuses on immigration courts and detention.



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