Hundreds of immigrant advocates, elected officials rally for passage of Access to Representation Act

Immigration advocates hold a news conference at the Million Dollar Staircase.
Immigration advocates hold a news conference at the Million Dollar Staircase.
Photo courtesy New York Immigration Coalition

Elected officials, including State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, last Tuesday joined the CARE for Immigrant Families coalition at the Million Dollar Staircase in Albany in calling for the passage of the Access to Representation Act (ARA).

The first-in-the-nation bill would establish a right to counsel in immigration court proceedings.

Prior to the press conference, hundreds of coalition members marched throughout the Empire Plaza – marking the CARE coalition’s largest action to date, as advocates make their final push for the ARA.

Earlier this month, state legislators asserted their commitment to immigrant New Yorkers with a historic investment of $120 million in the one-house budget resolutions – the largest portion of which is for legal services funding.

The New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), an umbrella policy and advocacy organization that represents over 200 immigrant and refugee rights groups throughout New York, said funding will help immigrant New Yorkers access attorneys as they navigate a complicated legal system, but it falls short without the passage of ARA.

As legislative leaders negotiate the final Fiscal 2024 Budget, immigrant advocates urge Gov. Kathy Hochul and lawmakers to both pass the ARA as a long-term legislative solution while maintaining the proposed $120 million funding.

NYIC said immigrant New Yorkers who can’t afford to hire an attorney are currently forced to represent themselves in court—regardless of age or language abilities — against trained government attorneys.

Studies show that immigrants in detention with legal representation are 10 times more likely to win their right to remain in the United States, making it more important than ever for legislative leaders to fund legal services and help keep immigrant families intact, NYIC said.

Sponsored by Sen. Hoylman-Sigal and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, the passage of the ARA will help thousands of New Yorkers stay in their homes with their families, contributing to their communities and our economy, NYIC said.

“Having a lawyer in an immigration hearing can be the difference between life and death. Non-detained people in immigration hearings are over three times more likely to achieve a successful outcome if they have representation. Our Access to Representation Act will help immigrants get the legal representation they need. I am grateful to Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, the New York Immigration Coalition, the Vera Institute of Justice, Immigrant-ARC, and Make the Road for their advocacy in support of this critical bill,” said Hoylman-Sigal.

“I’m proud to stand with immigrant New Yorkers knowing that our legislature is making an unprecedented commitment to them at a time of great need. I know how challenging the legal system is to navigate for all New Yorkers, but especially those who cannot afford legal representation and for those who may not speak English. The Access to Representation Act will ensure that all New Yorkers, regardless of their wealth, will be able to secure the legal services they need to remain with their families, at their jobs, and in their communities. I look forward to working with the advocates and my Senate partner Brad Hoylman-Sigal, to ensure the passage of the Access to Representation Act in this year’s budget,” said Assembly Member Cruz.

Assemblywoman Taylor Darling said, “Immigrants in New York need our help. Many of them are facing extreme hardships and deportation which leave them in great need of legal defense.  Immigrants will have much better outcomes if they have counsel but many cannot afford legal services. This is why it is so important to pass this bill in support of immigrants throughout the state.  I am committed to continuing to provide protection to the immigrants of New York State. It is time to pass the Access to Representation Act now.”

“Absent federal action, our state has a duty to ensure due process and the right to counsel in immigration proceedings. Many immigrants faced with deportation have never known another home or may risk being sent back to a dangerous situation they had to flee from. Having the ability to make their case in court with the assistance of an attorney has life changing impacts,” said Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi.

“Everyone deserves fair access to legal representation but without the Access to Representation Act, too many families are left to their own devices during complicated immigration cases. I can feel the pain of discriminatory court practices in my community and it prevents working people from having dignified lives. Now is the time to pass the Access to Representation Act and uplift immigrant communities,” said Assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynes.

Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon said, “In the final week of budget negotiations, it is crucial that we include the first-in-the-nation Access to Representation Act to guarantee legal counsel for immigrants during deportation proceedings. Many immigrants are forced to represent themselves in complicated legal proceedings simply because they lack financial resources. Immigrants who have access to legal counsel are 10 times more likely to establish their right to remain in the US as opposed to those without counsel. I stand firmly with the NY Immigration Coalition on their tireless advocacy to ensure legal rights for immigrants.”

“It is important that Gov. Hochul see that we are not giving up on the Access to Representation Act. Today, hundreds of New Yorkers from all over the state descended on Albany to ensure this historic legislation is passed. The governor must ensure historic investments in immigrant service are maintained and that the Access to Representation Act is included in the final budget to make our legal system truly equitable and just for all,” said Murad Awawdeh, NYIC executive director.

“Legal representation should not be a luxury for the well-connected. Every single data point shows that people facing deportation are far more likely to remain with their loved ones if they have a lawyer on their side. New York communities and economies are stronger when our families and workforce remain stable and thriving. We urge the legislature and Governor to build upon the Senate and Assembly proposals by delivering $120 million for legal and social services and enacting the Access to Representation Act in the final budget,” said Shayna Kessler, State Advocacy Manager for the Vera Institute of Justice’s Advancing Universal Representation initiative.

“Immigrant New Yorkers are facing a crisis of representation in immigration deportation proceedings. We are encouraged by the Senate and Assembly including historic increases to immigration legal services in their one-house proposals and urge them to fully-fund immigration legal services in their final budget. It is not enough to fund immigration legal services year-to-year. Immigration cases often take years to complete. It is difficult for immigration legal service providers to take on additional cases if they cannot guarantee that they will have sufficient funding throughout their client’s cases. That is why the Senate and Assembly must include the Access to Representation Act in the FY2024 Budget. This will create both a stable funding stream for immigration legal service providers, and recognize that the over 60,000 immigrants who face deportation without counsel in New York’s immigration courts deserve representation,” said Camille Mackler, ARC’s executive director of immigrant.

“Immigrants are an integral part of the fabric of our central New York communities. But with a broken federal immigration system, more and more immigrants are arriving who require legal assistance to establish their right to be here in court. Right now, the pro bono assistance available is only able to cover a small percentage of the cases that we are seeing. That leaves immigrants exposed to risks family separation, deportation to dangerous situations in their home countries or forced to take on huge amounts of debt to hire private attorneys. This is a situation that NYS can fix now,” said Jessica Maxwell, executive director of the Workers Center of Central New York.

“Upstate New York is home to a dedicated and close-knit network of law student clinics and non-profit legal service providers. Our waiting lists are growing long and we aren’t able to meet the burgeoning need. The Access to Representation Act would go a long way toward expanding capacity in our overextended programs,” said Professor Sarah Rogerson, Director, The Justice Center at Albany Law School.

The Campaign for Access, Representation and Equity (CARE) for Immigrant Families comprises NYIC; the Vera Institute of Justice; and Immigrant-ARC lead CARE for Immigrant Families, a coalition of over 100 leading organizations, religious groups and elected officials united to pass the Access to Representation Act.

The bill (S00999/A00170) will guarantee access to legal representation for immigrants at risk of deportation in New York.

Sponsored by Hoylman and Cruz, the legislation would be the first in the nation to create a statewide right to legal representation for people facing deportation who cannot afford it, whether they have recently arrived in the state or have been New Yorkers for decades.