New York Gave Every Detained Immigrant A Lawyer. It Could Serve As A National Model

Biden wants to expand immigrants’ access to legal representation.

Deportation can carry grave consequences. An immigrant might have to leave behind their family, abandon years-long ties to their community, and return to a country where they may have previously faced threats to their life and livelihood — even the kind that might have qualified them for humanitarian protection in the US had they been able to prove it.

But despite those potential costs, they aren’t entitled to a lawyer when facing deportation proceedings in immigration court. The Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a public defender to anyone accused of a crime, doesn’t apply.

The Biden administration is looking to address this. Last month, the president signed a presidential memorandum aimed at expanding access to legal representation and the courts, including for low-income people, immigrants, and asylum seekers. While details of the plan are short, he has asked the Justice Department to restart its access to justice work, which was on hiatus during the Trump administration, and convened a roundtable of civil legal aid organizations to advise him.

But the Biden administration need not look far for potential solutions: The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, a first-of-its-kind program that provides publicly funded lawyers to every detained or incarcerated immigrant in the state, offers a helpful model.

The project started with a $500,000 grant from the New York City Council in 2013, and was based out of a single immigration court in lower Manhattan. Now the program receives $16.6 million in public funding to support more than 100 staff, including attorneys, paralegals, social workers, and administrators who work to improve outcomes for immigrants statewide.

Advocates and experts say the New York project has since inspired similar local efforts around the country.

By Nicole Narea for VOX
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