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State Stiffs Immigration Lawyer Fund Cuomo Once Lauded as ‘Beacon of Hope’

Governor Andrew Cuomo touts his support for immigrant communities, April 25, 2018.
Governor Andrew Cuomo touts his support for immigrant communities, April 25, 2018.
Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Office

Advocacy groups across New York City and the state are demanding answers after they say the governor’s office is withholding funding for immigrant services, including a first-of-its-kind program that provided free legal representation in deportation cases.

In a letter sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday, officials with 78 nonprofits wrote they 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.”

And not only do future contracts for the Liberty Defense Project hang in the balance, but reimbursements for work done under last year’s budget have also been suspended, they say. That’s forcing nonprofits to consider more layoffs and service reductions amid recent pandemic-driven cutbacks.

Organizations learned in June that payments for work as far back as January had been put on hold.

“Deportation defense attorneys have always had an exceptionally hard job,” said Shayna Kessler of the Vera Institute of Justice. She noted the compounding frustration of remote work and tightening federal immigration policy alongside the daily challenge of dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

“It feels particularly awful at this moment in time when there’s such a concerted effort to deprive immigrants of rights and such clear data that with counsel, it’s not so challenging for people to be able to make the case that they can stay here,” Kessler said.

The funding pause comes just months after a hard-fought effort by nonprofits and lawmakers to ensure $10 million for immigrant legal defense in next year’s state budget.

Blame It On the Feds

Cuomo’s office forwarded questions about immigrant legal services funding to his Division of the Budget, which blamed the federal government for the state’s depleted coffers — but failed to explain how officials had chosen which services would not be paid.

“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,” Freeman Kloppot, a budget division spokesperson said in a written statement. “We hope our nonprofit partners will continue to call on the federal government to act.”

Assemblymember Catalina Cruz (D-Queens), a former undocumented immigrant who had spearheaded the push for funding the program, said she understood the state is short on cash, but didn’t get why past bills weren’t being paid.

Kids have a foot race in the South Bronx, July 31, 2020.
Kids have a foot race in the South Bronx, July 31, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

“I’m a little bit perplexed by the idea that the lack of funds should fall on the federal government because some of this money was from last year’s budget,” she said.

Cruz blamed the state’s failure to pass budget-boosting measures such as the legalization of marijuana and a wealth tax for the funding shortfall.

“So here we are with thousands of people that need to be paid for their work,” she said. “Thousands of others that depend on the nonprofits that provide this work. And we have the audacity to say ‘Sorry we don’t have any money?’ That’s not acceptable.”

David Friedfel of the Citizens Budget Commission, a state budget watchdog, noted the immigration defense organizations are likely part of cuts related to what Cuomo has called a $14 billion shortfall.

“There’s an element of truth there that the federal government should do more,” Friedfel told THE CITY. “Whether or not it’s fair to blame them for this individual payment being delayed is really a different question.”

No More Buckets

The Liberty Defense Project, established in 2017, relied on various factions in the state legislature for funding until notching a last-minute $10 million lifeline from the governor’s office in April 2019.

At the time, Cuomo lauded the project, saying, “New York has long been a beacon of hope for immigrants from across the globe, and as Washington continues to threaten the rights of new Americans we will work harder than ever to ensure they are protected.”

He added, “By expanding the programs offered through the Liberty Defense Project we can ensure New York’s immigrants have the social services, healthcare, and urgent assistance they need as they seek a better life for themselves and their families.”

The funds help subsidize immigrant legal support and know-your-rights training across the state, since unlike in criminal proceedings, immigration court defendants are not granted a Constitutional right to free legal counsel. Since April, the program has expanded to include family support services.

Immigrant-rights advocates rally at City Hall against ICE raids.
Immigrant-rights advocates rally at City Hall against ICE raids, Feb. 28, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In Monday’s letter, nonprofit leaders pleaded that they need the funding “to avoid layoffs, continue client services, and succeed in standing up to the harm the federal government is bringing to New York’s immigrants.”

“The nonprofits don’t have any buckets to go to,” said Friedfel, noting that immigration defense isn’t the only program in similar straits. “Now, to provide services to the services that are most vulnerable, the services to those that may be at higher risk, communities and services to those that are minority, low income communities that are valued by the state of New York, those are the ones that are most affected.”

‘We Can’t Give Up’

The largest program within the Liberty Defense Project is the Vera-run New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which began in New York City’s Varick Street immigration courthouse and was the first in the United States to provide public defense to people fighting deportation proceedings from inside detention centers.

While the program within the five boroughs is fully funded by the City Council, its upstate lawyers get money from the state. Detainees in upstate facilities often are arrested in, or on their way to, New York City.

Such was the case when Miguel, a Honduran national, who met his New York Immigrant Family Unity Project-funded lawyer, Mary Slattery, at Albany County Jail as he dreamed of joining his family in The Bronx.

Miguel — who asked to use a pseudonym due to his open asylum case — is Garifuna, an Afro-indigenous minority in Central America and the Caribbean that has suffered ongoing persecution. He fled from his hometown on the Pacific coast of Honduras to the U.S-Mexico border with his sister and nephews after experiencing violent attacks and death threats from their town’s local militiamen.

But when his family presented themselves to the Border Patrol agents in Texas, authorities separated them, he said.

While his sister and nephews were allowed to fight their asylum claims in freedom, Miguel languished for 14 months in a federal cell before he was finally released following legal pressure from Slattery..

“It doesn’t only mean losing, it has to do with my life, and my family’s lives. Thanks to Mary, I was strong and she told me, ‘We can’t give up, we have to keep fighting.’

Without Slattery’s ongoing help, he said, things could have turned out much differently. They still could: He is awaiting the re-hearing of his case in immigration court.

Slattery said that a loss of funding makes her worry not only for her job, but for immigrants like Miguel who are detained in state facilities wracked by the coronavirus.

“If I was not funded to appeal [his case] he would have been deported over a year ago and his family would be here,” she said.

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