New York Creates Public Defender System for Immigrants

October 1, 2014

Courtroom

Leroy Samuels shuffled into the Varick Street immigration court in lower Manhattan. Wearing handcuffs and ankle-shackles he glanced at his father sitting in the front row. His work-worn hands held his head as he tried to hide the tears. Leroy, 24, watched his father for a moment and then lowered his eyes in shame mixed with fear.

Three days earlier, Samuels was in a detention center preparing for his initial court appearance — alone. An immigrant from the island nation of Jamaica, Samuels couldn’t afford an attorney and he wasn’t eligible for a court-appointed lawyer either.

Without legal guidance and a strong defense, Samuels knew he was going to be deported back to Jamaica. Jamaica wasn’t home, but it was where he lived when his father brought him to the US fifteen years earlier. Samuels had never been back since he left.

Samuels was fortunate. He was one of 190 immigrants who would make an appearance with a public defender funded by the Family Unity Program, the first of its kind in the nation.

The path to immigration court started for Samuels four years previously. With no place to stay, he had started sleeping on a friend’s sofa. When the police raided the apartment on a tip, they found Samuels holding a package of drugs his friend had given him for safekeeping. Taken to court, Samuels pled guilty and was sentenced to time served — six days.

The brush with the law was a wakeup call that Samuels made full use of. Finding a steady job, he stopped hanging around with the wrong crowd and even made sure to see his son — who now lived with an ex-girlfriend — twice a week. A year later, Samuels thought his legal problems were history.

About eight o’clock one cold December morning, Samuels was walking home from work when two men pulled to the curb and asked to speak with him. They were federal immigration agents and they arrested Samuels and placed him in detention in New Jersey.

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project provides services to all eligible city residents who are immigrants and have been caught up in the system that requires numerous, and often fruitless, appearances in immigration courts throughout New York City or across the river in Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey.

With the city’s approval of $4.8 million for the initiative in June, lawmakers have acknowledged that immigration law is incredibly complex and too expensive for most immigrants to access.

“Immigration law can be exceedingly difficult for immigrants to succeed in, even if they have legal grounds,” said Oren Root with the Vera Institute of Justice which is tasked with overseeing the project. Statistics reveal that immigrants without attorneys win their cases about 3 percent of them time and those with attorneys are more successful.

“The idea that an immigrant can go up against trained government lawyers and have any hope of winning is a pipe dream,” said Root.

New York City has a strong immigrant history and a large immigrant population. According to New York Human Rights Committee, the majority of immigrants choose the Big Apple as their preferred point of contact with America.  With a liberal mayor working with a liberal City Council, observers aren’t surprised that the city is the genesis for the project.

“This is a city taking charge of what it thinks justice looks like in the courts for immigrants,” said City Council-member Carlos Menchaca.

The criminal justice system operates in line with a Supreme Court ruling that the accused has a guaranteed right to representation. It is a different situation in civil proceedings such as immigration cases. In civil matters, the accused is not guaranteed legal counsel.

“Deportation cases are usually very complex. Many times the cause of the case was an underlying criminal charge. While the defendant is granted the right to a free legal help when he is facing prison time, he is denied a free counsel being at risk of losing everything he has including his family ties and his business or a job,” says Anna Bukh, a lawyer practicing international immigration law and an avid supporter of immigrants’ rights in New York.

The New York initiative, started as a pilot program in 2013, had enough funds to handle almost 200 clients. By the end of May of 2014, ten cases had been finished with the determination that the immigrant had the right to stay in the US. While other immigrants were deported because they did not have the legal grounds to stay, some feel they benefited from the presence of an attorney.

“Attorneys help immigrants navigate even that part [deportation] with dignity,” said Andrea Saenz with the Immigration Justice Clinic.

New funds are expected and will provide services to over 1,300 new clients. Attorneys for the new cases will come from public defender groups already working in the city.

Immigration advocacy groups in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco are also studying proposals for similar efforts. The initiative’s next goal is to try to get the federal government to start paying for public defenders.

“This can’t be solved nationally jurisdiction by jurisdiction,” Root said.

In April, Leroy Samuels was in the Varick Street court one more time. His court appointed attorney had worked out an agreement with the federal government’s lawyer. Samuels would be going home to Brooklyn. Following a short hearing, the judge warned Samuels to avoid any more legal problems and told the young man he could leave.

Going to the courthouse cafeteria, his hugged his father and thanked his attorneys.