Opinion

Ensuring fair legal representation of immigrants is good for New York’s economy

By Sarah Burr |  

November 10, 2017 |  

(Shutterstock)

As a former immigration judge, I know well the critical need for lawyers to represent indigent immigrants. Unlike people accused of crimes, immigrants in deportation proceedings who cannot afford a private attorney have no constitutional right to an assigned attorney. When this lack of an attorney is compounded by detention, the chances of winning a deportation case are abysmally low. In 2013, the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) was founded to address this startling inequity.

We’ve always known, intuitively, that the results of these programs would be overwhelmingly positive for the detained immigrants and their families, the city and the immigration court. Now we have the numbers. Using data compiled over the past two and a half years, the Vera Institute of Justice just released a multi-year study of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project and the effect of universal legal representation for detained indigent immigrants in New York City. 

Before this program’s inception, the success rate for immigrants without a lawyer in deportation proceedings was 4 percent. Now, with NYIFUP attorneys representing every eligible immigrant, the success rate is 48 percent – a 1,100 percent increase in successful outcomes.

Not only have the immigrants in proceedings won their cases, their New York City-based families have won the ability to remain together. The immigrants participating in the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project have deep roots in our city. On average, NYIFUP clients have been living in the United States for 16 years before they are put in deportation proceedings. Many (49 percent) of the program’s clients entered the United States legally and many are law permanent residents (or green card holders). They are the parents of thousands of children in the city, many of whom are U.S. citizens. NYIFUP has reunified more than 750 individuals with their families. With this dramatic increase in successful outcomes in immigration court, families are kept intact to provide the financial and emotional support necessary for their children.

The city, state and federal government also win. Many, if not most, NYIFUP participants are the main source of income and support for their families. Once they are released from detention, they can work, provide for their families, and contribute to the tax base. NYIFUP is estimated to have helped more than 400 New Yorkers gain or maintain work authorization by winning their immigration cases. Immigrants are also a large part of the business community, especially within the five boroughs of New York City – 54 percent of self-employed New Yorkers are immigrants and they own more than 83,000 businesses in the city. Studies have shown that having vibrant immigrant populations make communities safer. In communities that have large foreign-born communities, crime has been shown to go down. When those facing deportation have legal representation and successful outcomes, economies at the local, state and national level reap the benefit.

Last, but not least, the program has vastly improved the administration of justice. The court runs more smoothly when attorneys represent detainees. Judges can rest assured that a competent counsel represents the immigrants who appear before them in a setting that ensures due process and equal protection. Democracy as we revere it in the United States is supported and reinforced by equal representation for all people living in the country.

At this moment in time, ensuring fair representation in our judicial system is critically important, especially for millions of immigrants living in the US. Extending the right to an attorney to all individuals who enter our courts, regardless of their citizenship or socioeconomic status, is entirely about holding our justice system to the highest standard. NYIFUP and programs like it are a first step towards equal justice – a step that benefits all involved.

Sarah Burr is former assistant chief immigration judge in charge of the New York City Immigration Courts.

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