Immigration Coalition wants funding restored for legal services program

Legislative Gazette photo by Emily Forman
From Left: Steve Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coaliton; Kica Matos, director of the Vera Center on Immigration and Justice; Senator Neil Breslin, D-Delmar, and Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, D-Jackson Heights, talk about the need to fund programs that provide legal services to immigrants in New York.

Attorneys and immigrant rights groups are demanding funding for the Liberty Defense Project, a program that provides legal services for immigrants that was cut from the 2020-2021 Executive Budget.

Introduced to the budget in 2017, the Liberty Defense Project is the first state-funded program that partners with private organizations to provide free legal services to immigrants, including legal representation in deportation proceedings, free legal consultations, filing for naturalization, and employment issues.

“When you need an immigration lawyer, it is expensive. And so we need to make sure that we are fully funding the lawyers who are doing the work,” said Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, D-Jackson Heights. “Lawyers [working with the Liberty Defense Project] are making sure that our communities are represented, that we’re fighting for the immigrants, and that we are fighting to make sure our families are not being torn apart.”

The Vera Institute for Justice and the New York Immigration Coalition are among other advocacy groups requesting not only for a restoration of the program funds that were previously in the 2019-2020 budget, but that funding increase from $10 million to $15.3 million to continue to meet the needs of immigrant New Yorkers.

“The money that we fought for so hard, to represent our community, disappeared,” said Cruz, “ Ten million dollars is not enough to represent thousands of people who are going through removal proceedings or other immigration issues.”

In last years budget, the Liberty Defense Project was comprised of three separate programs for immigrants: Project Golden Door, which provides support services to immigrant families; the Rapid Response Program, which designated attorneys to defend immigrants threatened by deportation; and the Vera Institute of Justice’s New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which provided representation to detained immigrants.

The Liberty Defense Project also funded Know Your Rights training, which informs community members on what to do if approached by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Pew Research Center reports more than 40 million immigrants living the U.S. in 2019, with 725,000 undocumented immigrants living in New York in 2016.

Karen Murtagh is the director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, which represents immigrants under the Liberty Defense Project. She sees asylum seeking to be a considerable issue for immigrants in trying to approve they have a right to U.S. protection to judges amidst a language barrier.

“There are people that are not even deportable that are picked up by ICE and held in detention,” said Murtagh.

According to a survey conducted in January 2020 by the Vera Institute of Justice, of 2,000 New Yorkers surveyed, 93 percent support government-funded lawyers for people in immigration court.

Immigration reform advocates are hopeful that in the final budget, due March 31, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators will ultimately decide to fund the Liberty Defense Project.

“You can’t say that you are protecting immigrant families at a time where you are literally removing the best projects,” said Steve Choi, the executive director of New York Immigration Coalition. “We need a full investment to protect New York’s immigrant families.”