11-23-2011By Lori Adams
Managing Attorney, Refugee Protection Program
Earlier this week Mayor Bloomberg announced a significant expansion of legal services in New York City for immigrants who cannot afford to pay for legal counsel. The inadequacy of legal services for indigent immigrants has been an issue of serious concern to the New York legal community, public officials, federal judges and others. The announced expansion of legal services in New York City represents an important step towards addressing this serious problem, and could serve as a model for other cities that also have large populations of indigent immigrants in need of legal representation.
According to the Mayor’s announcement, this initiative will mean the addition of 13 full-time attorneys and an attorney coordinator in New York City by the beginning of 2012. The Robin Hood Foundation is providing funding for three domestic violence attorneys who will be employed by Sanctuary for Families in the city’s Family Justice Centers. The New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services is providing funding for ten immigration attorneys who will provide free legal services throughout the five boroughs to immigrants in criminal court who cannot otherwise afford counsel and need help resolving their court cases without jeopardizing their immigration status. This program will also fund an immigration attorney coordinator who will work in the office of Mayor Bloomberg to monitor case intake and performance, coordinate training and referrals, and report back on the program’s progress. The Mayor, the State Office of Indigent Legal Services, and the Robin Hood Foundation should be commended for their leadership in developing this initiative.
Through our pro bono legal representation program for asylum-seekers in New York, New Jersey, Washington DC, and elsewhere, we see first-hand the dramatic impact that competent legal counsel has on the lives of immigrants. Our asylum clients include survivors of domestic violence and others who would be at risk of persecution, torture, and even death if returned to their countries of origin. Studies have shown that whether an asylum-seeker is represented is the single most important factor in determining the outcome of the case. It has been shown that immigrants with counsel have a much higher chance of success rate in being granted relief from removal than those without legal representation. The disparity is even more striking for those in immigration detention.
Many immigrants who cannot otherwise afford counsel are left to try to navigate our complex legal system on their own. Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative will provide more immigrants living in New York City with access to legal counsel so that they can receive protection or other immigration status when they are legally entitled to it. This step is a concrete reflection of the city’s stated commitment to immigrant communities, and follows the recent celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty which is a symbol of freedom and welcome for generations of immigrants.
Over the last few years, the Honorable Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has convened The Study Group on Immigrant Representation which has brought together a diverse group of scholars, legal service providers, law firm partners, immigration judges, and representatives of local government, among others, to address the unmet legal needs of indigent immigrants in New York City. The group has helped to shine a light on the significant lack of legal counsel for immigrants in New York, and the need for increased pro bono and other legal representation for those who cannot afford to pay for counsel. Through the work of the group and with the generous funding of the Leon Levy Foundation, a two-year fellowship was created earlier this year to increase the capacity of Human Rights First to provide pro bono legal representation for asylum-seekers in New York City. Mayor Bloomberg’s more recent initiative to provide a cadre of immigration lawyers to help serve the immigrant population in New York City is another important step toward addressing the needs of unrepresented immigrants. However, there will still be significant gaps in access to legal counsel for indigent asylum-seekers and other immigrants in New York City and throughout the country. We hope that these initiatives will inspire additional action, and lead to a further increases in legal representation for other immigrant populations, including those who may be eligible for other forms of relief and those who may be trying to navigate our legal system from immigrant detention.