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.
“New York City is a great story where it started with a relatively small pilot project only trying to represent a fraction of the population, but then being able to expand on that at the state level after demonstrating success,” said Annie Chen, program director of the Vera Institute’s SAFE Initiative, which works with governments, legal service providers, and advocates to push for universal representation. “The last couple of years, local and state government have been innovating and setting up these types of programs that are really paving the way for federal action.”
Biden now has an opportunity to take advantage of that momentum.
How New York created a model for universal representation
New York was the first state to recognize the importance of providing universal representation to immigrants in detention, and it has since inspired similar state and local initiatives nationwide. There are now 43 publicly funded local and state deportation defense programs nationwide within 11 states, from Harris County, Texas, to Prince George’s County, Maryland.
It started with Second Circuit Chief Judge Robert Katzmann, who convened a group of lawyers to study the issue in 2011 after noticing that many of the immigrants who came before him in the appeals court lost out on potential opportunities for deportation relief because they didn’t have a lawyer to guide them.
The group came out with a report that found that nearly two-thirds of immigrants in New York were unrepresented, and just 3 percent of detained, unrepresented immigrants had successful outcomes. It also identified a dearth of legal talent available to fill that need.
The report was the catalyst for the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which started out of the Varick Street immigration court in Manhattan.
Sarah Deri Oshiro, who is now managing director of the immigration practice at the Bronx Defenders, had been working on deportation defense at Varick Street for five years prior to the implementation of the program. She saw a grim reality for detained, unrepresented immigrants, despite the city’s robust network of legal services…