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Poor Immigrants Get Free Legal Defense in New York City Program

A pilot program in New York City provides legal defense free of charge for poor immigrants in detention, the first of its kind in the country.
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Leroy Samuels walked into the Varick Street immigration court in lower Manhattan, his wrists handcuffed and attached to a chain around his waist. “My heart is beating,” Samuels’ older sister Anneisha said from a courtroom bench as her father beside her, his head in his hands to hide tears. Samuels, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, nodded at his family and lowered his eyes.

Three days earlier, the 24-year-old had been in a New Jersey detention center preparing to appear at his first hearing alone. Immigrants facing deportation, like Samuels, aren’t eligible for court-appointed attorneys. And like most immigrants in his position, he couldn’t afford one on his own.

“I found some lawyers online, but they asked for $4,000,” Anneisha said. “I just hung up.”

Without legal defense, Samuels was sure he’d be deported to Jamaica, the country where he was born but has not been for nearly 15 years since his father brought him to the U.S.

But Samuels arrived in court that December morning with an attorney anyway. He is one of 190 people facing deportation from New York City who have been provided a free lawyer through the Family Unity Program, a city council-funded pilot initiative that provides for two public defenders’ offices to hire lawyers to represent poor immigrants in detention. It's the first program of its kind in the country. Now city lawmakers are poised to expand it almost ten-fold, making New York City the first municipality to provide legal defense to all detained indigent residents facing deportation.

“Justice shouldn't depend on the income level of anyone,” says Judge Robert Katzmann, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who convened a multi-year study group from which the pilot emerged. “I think that the project will create momentum for greater support for providing counsel for people facing deportation.”

A number of other cities, including Boston and Chicago, are exploring similar programs. And this year, Alameda County, California, which includes the cities of Oakland, Fremont and Berkeley, started a program that approaches New York’s.

"It's really an example of how the government process can be made better.”

“This is part of a trend,” says Raha Jorjani, the immigration attorney hired by Alameda County. “Public defenders are saying that until Congress acts to provide legal defense for immigrants in deportation proceedings, we at the county level have to do our part to mitigate harm to clients.”

In recent years, more immigrants have found themselves in court as the U.S. government has deported and detained nearly 400,000 each year. Though not all people facing deportation are detained, those who get locked up, either because they were previously charged with a crime or entered the country without papers, are less likely to have an attorney to represent them and more likely to be deported. The two biggest factors in successfully resolving a case are having a lawyer and being free during the trial, according to a report by Katzmann’s group.

Preliminary data on the New York City pilot, which comes to a close on June 30th, shows that of 190 detainees, almost half have been released or have a legal case to argue for release. Some may still be deported but can now fight from outside prison.

Providing these immigrants with legal defense, Katzmann says, creates both fairness and efficiency, saving county and federal governments money they’d otherwise spend locking people up. “It's a benefit to the judge, it’s a benefit to the government and to the non-citizen. It's really an example of how the government process can be made better.”

For Samuels, the road to immigration court started with legal trouble in 2010. He’d been without a place to stay and was sleeping on a friend’s couch. The friend, Samuels says, asked him to hold onto a package of drugs. Samuels says police officers arrived at the apartment and arrested him. He pleaded guilty and was convicted of criminal possession of a controlled substance and sentenced to time-served, six days in jail.

Samuels and his family say he quickly straightened his life. He found a steady job at a pharmacy, stopped hanging with friends who sold drugs and made sure to see his son, who lived with his ex-girlfriend, at least twice a week. A year passed and then two. He thought the criminal case was behind him.

Then at around 8:30 one morning last December, as he walked home to his Brooklyn apartment after working the night shift, he was stopped on the street and arrested by federal immigration agents. He was placed in detention in New Jersey, facing deportation. Immigration attorneys say it’s not uncommon for officials to detain immigrants long after an arrest.

“I never really thought about being deported,” Samuels said this winter from behind glass in the visitation room at the Hudson County, New Jersey, detention center. “I had a good job. I had visits with my son. I was on my way,” Samuels said. He’d hoped to enroll in culinary school, but from detention, he saw his plans evaporating. And his live-in girlfriend was pregnant and due in May. “What if I’m not there?” he said.

“The first time that I visited my brother at Hudson,” Anneisha Samuels says, “I didn’t know what to do. It’s not like when people are arrested, regular arrested, and they get a lawyer.”

Anneisha had recently lost her job as a home health aide. Their father was between jobs, too.

The next day, Anneisha received a call from Talia Peleg of Brooklyn Defenders Services, one of three attorneys from her office working on the immigrant defense pilot program. (The Bronx Defenders office employs three others.) Peleg bore good news: She would represent Leroy in court free of charge.

“An attorney knows how to talk the talk and walk the walk,” Peleg explained recently. “And to translate these complex immigration issues into a narrative that makes sense to the court,” without a lawyer, “I don’t know if that would be possible.”

The program attorneys say their representation by no means guarantees that their clients will stay in the U.S. For people with many criminal convictions, there’s no viable legal argument to stay. Many of these people are subject to what's known as mandatory detention. For them, fighting to remain in America can mean months or even years in detention while their case winds through the system. Some opt to leave.

Diego Garcia, originally from Guerrero, Mexico, picked up several misdemeanor and disorderly conduct charges in New York. He was fired from a catering job and was drinking heavily.

Eventually, those arrests led to deportation proceedings. He landed in the Hudson County detention center, and then at the Varick Street Immigration Court, where he, too, met Peleg. He was so eager to get out of prison that he told her he just wanted to be deported, but she encouraged him to sit through a 35-minute intake questionnaire to see what his options might be.

It turned out Garcia was eligible for a U visa, a special visa for victims of crime–in his case, witness tampering. The catering company he’d worked for had paid him and others far less than minimum wage, according to the Department of Labor. Garcia’s lawyers say his employer then pressured him to lie to federal investigators who were at the time looking into workplace violations.

Garcia was thrilled to hear there was a possible path to staying in America.

Peleg explained that the visa—if it came through—would take months, and he'd have to stay at Hudson while they fought. Rather than wait in jail, Garcia accepted the removal order, and went back to Mexico. “I wanted to be free,” he said recently by phone from Mexico City, “and fight from there.”

“It's very hard to be incarcerated, waiting,” Garcia said “When you're there, you feel confused, fearful.”

Peleg and Garcia are in regular contact as she pursues his U visa. And he has some money to help him get through the wait. When Peleg contacted the Department of Labor, which had repeatedly fined the catering company, officials said they had more than $3,000 in back wages for Garcia.

According to New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, who represents several heavily immigrant communities in Queens, before the pilot project, she heard from families who spent thousands of dollars on immigration lawyers. “Often times it was money that these families didn't have,” she said. But no one was beating down her door demanding publicly-funded lawyers, she said. “My constituency didn't even know that that's what they needed to cry out for.”

Now, that’s changed. The families she talks to are getting help from attorneys whose sole focus is on immigration defense. “We're raising the level of justice,” Ferreras said.

Nationally, giving a lawyer to every indigent immigrant facing deportation would save the federal government close to $175 million in detention costs, a study found.

The final draft of the budget, released by the city council Tuesday night, allocates $4.9 million to expand the program. Now, all poor New Yorkers facing deportation, both at Varick Street and nearby immigration courts in New Jersey, will be appointed an attorney.

Ultimately, the goal of the project’s advocates is to provide counsel for all migrants facing deportation in New York State, which would cost $7.4 million, said Peter Markowitz, who runs the immigration legal clinic at Cardozo School of Law, which has helped lead advocacy for the pilot program.

That price tag would be offset by savings for the state, which would spend less on health care and foster care for children whose parents are deported, according to a study by the Center for Popular Democracy, another group supporting the program. The private sector would benefit, too; New York State employers now lose an estimated $9.1 million dollars in turnover costs to replace detained and deported workers, the study found.

Nationally, it would cost just over $200 million to give a lawyer to every indigent immigrant facing deportation, according to one recent study. The federal government would save close to $175 million in detention costs, the study found.

In April, Leroy Samuels appeared in in the Varick Street court again. He walked through the doors in cuffs, and his sister and father sat in the same spot. His attorney had already made a deal with the federal government’s lawyer: Samuels would be granted release. After a short hearing, the judge warned Leroy not to get into any more trouble, and then told the now-25-year old that he could leave. In the courthouse cafeteria Samuels embraced his father and sister and thanked his attorneys.

Samuels’ return has been difficult. He says that he hasn’t been able to get his job back—his former boss told him the company isn’t hiring.

But weeks ago, his girlfriend gave birth to their son. The day he was released, Samuels said, “I feel like I got a fresh start because of these lawyers.”