177 Livingston Street 7th Floor Brooklyn, NY 11201 (718) 254-0700 info@bds.org



Andrea Sáenz – Supervising Attorney, Immigration Practice

Presented before
The New York City Council
Executive Budget Hearing
May 25, 2017

I. Introduction

My name is Andrea Sáenz. I am the supervising attorney of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS). BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal, family and immigration defense, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy to more than 30,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year. Since 2009, BDS has counseled, advised or represented more than 7,500 immigrant clients. In 2016 alone, we handled more than 1500 immigration matters across a full spectrum of services. I thank the City Council for this opportunity to submit testimony about the Mayor’s Office’s proposed changes to the NYIFUP program.

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) is New York City’s groundbreaking, first-in-the nation program providing quality counsel to immigrant New Yorkers who are detained and facing deportation and separation from their families and communities. NYIFUP’s mandate of universal representation is the model upon which all other detained deportation representation programs in the nation are based. I strongly urge the Council and the Mayor’s Office to maintain the current parameters of the program and increase funding so that we can continue to provide universal representation to the rising numbers of immigrants who are being arrested and detained as a result of President Trump’s enforcement priorities. NYIFUP is a profound example of this City’s commitment to immigrant New Yorkers. Any changes to the existing model will be a dramatic step back from the values of due process for all that , by virtue of creating an infrastructure of accountability for prosecutors and judges, have powerfully exposed the injustice of immigration detention and rapid deportation.

II. Background on NYIFUP

   a. The impetus for the creation of NYIFUP

Despite facing the significant possibility of permanent exile from the United States, immigrants in deportation proceedings are not constitutionally entitled to a lawyer if they are unable to afford one. As a result, most immigrants across the country facing deportation are unrepresented. This leads to people being deported who have a right to remain in the country.

Prior to the creation of NYIFUP, only 33% of detained immigrants in New York City had counsel at the time their cases were completed. In contrast, nearly 80% of non-detained immigrants had representation. A 2011 study found that of New York City immigrants who were unrepresented and detained, only 3% obtained successful outcomes, as compared to the majority of respondents who were represented and non-detained who received successful outcomes in 74% of cases.

New York City recognized the injustice of the lack of counsel for detained immigrants and took the historic step of funding free lawyers for poor detained immigrants in removal proceedings. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project was never simply about the people detained, but was created to strengthen families and communities, as the program’s name suggests. As the Vera Institute of Justice notes, between 2005 and 2010, more than 7,000 U.S.-citizen children in New York City lost a parent to deportation. In addition to the financial hardship caused by the loss of a primary breadwinner, these children have been shown to suffer significant emotional and psychological effects. The legal representation provided by NYIFUP supports New York’s vibrant immigrant community by reducing unnecessary detention and unjust deportation of individuals who have strong ties to their communities.

   b. How NYIFUP works today and the program’s successes

BDS is proud to be a NYIFUP provider, along with The Bronx Defenders (BXD) and The Legal Aid Society (LAS). Since the project’s inception three years ago, BDS NYIFUP attorneys have defended more than 700 people in deportation proceedings. The improved outcomes for detained people represented by NYIFUP attorneys have far exceeded initial expectations: as of December 2015, 52% of pilot clients have been reunited with their families. During the pilot assessment period, NYIFUP attorneys won 71 percent of their trials. NYIFUP is projected to increase the percentage of immigrants who will win the right to remain in the United States by 1,000 percent, compared with prior success rates for detained, unrepresented immigrants.

NYIFUP providers staff intake days at the Varick Street Immigration Court (New York City’s detained docket) 2-3 times per week, seeing all individuals who are appearing for the first time before the court. The providers do a one-page income assessment to determine whether a person qualifies for NYIFUP representation. People who can afford their own attorneys or who already have an attorney are not provided a NYIFUP attorney. The vast majority of detained people who appear at intake qualify for a NYIFUP attorney based on their indigency.

NYIFUP currently represents any detained immigrant who appears at the Varick Street courthouse and meets the income requirements. Judges led the way in calling for the creation of NYIFUP, both to limit injustice and ensure that people with lawful claims to remain in this country were able to do so, and also to increase court efficiency. The goal of the program was never to exclude people from representation, but rather to recognize that if everyone is represented, the system functions more efficiently and justly.

Some of the people that NYIFUP represents resided in Long Island or Westchester County prior to their arrest by ICE, but they are not excluded from representation under the NYIFUP model because the goal was always to promote universal representation for all individuals detained and facing deportation in New York City. Governor Cuomo decided to replicate the NYIFUP model when he set aside $4 million in the FY2018 state budget to ensure that detained New Yorkers in all upstate immigration courts will be eligible to receive legal counsel during deportation proceedings. The state model is also based on venue, rather than client residence, and will cover all individuals detained and facing deportation in four upstate immigration courts. By ensuring that people are not excluded from NYIFUP because of geographic considerations, with the addition of the FY18 funding from the state legislature, New York will be the first state in the nation to ensure that all people who are detained and facing deportation in any immigration court in New York State have a lawyer to help them assert and defend their rights. Brooklyn Defender Services calls upon the Council to maintain the current parameters of the program to ensure that all people whose cases are heard in New York City receive due process.

   c. NYIFUP currently does not discriminate against people if they have a criminal record

People are not excluded from NYIFUP representation because of a criminal record. Indeed, from the outset, NYIFUP contracts were given to immigration attorneys within public defender offices because the function is similar and because NYIFUP providers’ expertise in criminal law improves the quality of representation in cases where crim-immigration issues are central. City Council recognized that people with criminal records were the most likely to be detained; the most likely to be deported without legal representation; and the least likely to obtain representation from organizations that pick and choose clients, in part because people with criminal records often have complex defenses in a deportation case. The City recognized that public defenders are best situated to assess the veracity and significance of a charge and to challenge or appeal the charge or conviction if they find it was unlawful or improper.

The whole point of a universal representation system is to ensure that anyone who may have the chance to stay with their family is given the full chance to litigate that right. It also reflects the very American value that even if a person does not have a defense, they deserve someone in their corner to advise them and give them a voice in the proceedings.

NYIFUP has found great success in representing New Yorkers, no matter a person’s criminal record. Over the past three and a half years, we have helped multiple U.S. citizens avoid wrongful deportation, prevented torture victims from being returned to their home countries where they would face certain death, and prevented deportations based on crimes that never actually happened. Some examples of clients who may have been denied representation based on a criminal history carve-out, but who had extremely compelling cases, are here:

Christopher A U.S. Citizen Released After Months of Zealous Representation.
Christopher left his home country as a young boy because he was afraid for his life and came to the US to find his father, a U.S. citizen who worked on military ships. Christopher struggled with homelessness and spent time in jail. In 2016, he was detained by ICE, devastating his U.S. citizen wife who depended on him financially and emotionally. His NYIFUP attorney realized that under the complex case law on citizenship, Christopher had derived citizenship when his father became a U.S. citizen. After months of factual development, his attorney won a contested evidentiary hearing about key facts in his childhood which allowed her to then file a complete motion to terminate his case on account of his U.S. citizenship. Days after this filing, ICE released Christopher from detention, allowing him to finish his case while working and supporting his family. He would never have known the law he needed to fight his case without an attorney by his side.

Karam Safe from Torture and Restarting His Life.
Karam is an older man who has lived in the United States as a green card holder since he was five years old. He grew up in a deeply homophobic neighborhood and culture, ashamed of his identity as a closeted gay man. Between this challenge, his learning disabilities, his depression, and his father’s abandonment, Karam developed a substance abuse problem and picked up several felony convictions. After being released from prison, he was arrested by ICE. In NYIFUP intake, Karam told the attorney meekly, “It’s OK, I know you’re not going to take my case.” NYIFUP counsel told him we would take his case, and after hard work building a strong record, Karam won Convention Against Torture protection based on the torture or death he would face as a gay man with his specific limitations if deported to his home country. He is now a full-time caretaker for his elderly mother who is fighting cancer, and has a positive outlook on himself that he never had before.

Marco A Young New Yorker Nearly Deported for a Turnstile Jump That Didn’t Happen.
Marco is a permanent resident with cognitive limitations. He had early struggles as a teenager that led to him being convicted of felony offenses, although he received youthful offender status on those. ICE placed him in deportation proceedings. Since the law does not allow ICE to deport Marco based on youthful offender cases, they charged him as subject to deportation for a single turnstile jumping conviction from when he was 16. While he was unrepresented, Marco was actually ordered deported on this charge. His case was later re-opened, and subsequently, Marco’s lawyer realized that Marco’s criminal records were wrong, and that this case was a mere disorderly conduct violation, not a turnstile jumping. ICE counsel refused to correct their mistake, and Marco’s attorney obtained new certified dispositions and filed a written motion to terminate his case. The immigration judge agreed and terminated the case, and Marco no longer faces deportation as a result of simple errors in his records.

As these examples show, a person’s criminal record, even if they have been convicted of serious felonies, does not preclude someone from relief from deportation under our immigration laws. Yet none of our clients would have been able to make these complex legal claims on their own without the assistance of an experienced deportation defense attorney. By not limiting who has a right to counsel, NYIFUP currently ensures that people are entitled to stay in the U.S. with their families may do so. Those who do not have a legal path to remain here are assured that they had qualified counsel review their case and provide them and their families with information about their legal options as they navigate one of the most difficult decisions of their life, to accept an order of deportation.

III. Increasing Immigration Enforcement

The NYIFUP Coalition jointly requests $12,000,000 to fully fund the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project in FY2018 to ensure that every detained New Yorker has legal representation when facing deportation.

a. Rising caseloads

Immigration arrests are up 40% nationwide, as ICE ramps up enforcement efforts since President Trump took office. This figure is consistent with what we have been seeing on the ground at intake. Not only have caseloads been particularly heavy this fiscal year, but the Varick Street Court began running initial appearance dockets three times a week instead of two times a week in May, which will cause an increase in intake of up to 50% over previous intake levels. Indeed, we have had to make the difficult decision to stop picking up cases at intake in the month of June because we have already exceeded out caseloads targets as determined by the City for FY17. This means that when detained people appear in immigration court for the first time after May 25th, we will be unable to take their cases because we are over the contractual maximum. During this hiatus from intake, NYIFUP attorneys will continue to go to Varick to do Know Your Rights presentation, provide individual advisals, and request adjournments, but will not pick up new cases. Unless the City provides more money for FY18 to meet the increased need, we will not be able to tell these people that we will be able to take their cases at a later date. The need for City support of NYIFUP has never been more acute.

To make matters worse, not only are we seeing more cases, but we see that ICE has changed their policies in the courtroom, making it more difficult for us to obtain the kinds of favorable outcomes that we received last year.

   b. Asylum seekers no longer being released on bond

For existing cases, we are seeing decreases in the use of prosecutorial discretion and discretionary release. From February to mid-March, we did not have an asylum seeker released from ICE custody for a period of nearly seven weeks. It appears that the White House’s January 25 executive order on border enforcement had the effect of ICE refusing to release detained asylum seekers even where they had passed an initial screening interview and had a sponsor or family member with lawful status ready to house and support them. Other immigration legal service providers across the country also report that ICE has virtually stopped granting detained immigrants bond or parole, keeping them incarcerated throughout their cases unless they successfully appeal to an immigration judge. Since March, we have had a few releases since starting to file federal habeas corpus litigation against this practice, but remain concerned that going forward ICE’s default will be to detain everyone, including asylum seekers, parents, and victims of violence and trauma, and to fight release however we seek it.

   c. ICE targeting people who won relief but have not yet received their visas or green cards

We are also seeing that NYIFUP clients who have been granted relief but have not yet received their green cards are being sought out by ICE and re-arrested. For example, we represent a 16-year-old client from Central America who has an approved Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) application who was arrested by the ICE gang unit and is now is a secure juvenile detention facility. While his SIJS application was approved, he has not yet received his visa number from USCIS. It is unclear to us why he was taking into detention by ICE, as he was not arrested by the NYPD or did not try to re-enter the U.S., two reasons that people are sometimes re-detained after release.

   d. Arrests in the courthouses

Our immigration clients, like our criminal defense clients, are scared to go to immigration court. ICE agents now roam the hallways at 26 Federal Plaza and we have observed ICE agents arresting people in the courts. This was uncommon in recent years. For example, BDS represents a client who was re-detained by ICE when he appeared for an immigration court date last year. How can we adequately counsel our clients about the importance of attending their immigration court appearances to fight against deportation when they face the threat of coercive immigration detention every time they enter the courthouse doors? Once detained, people depend on NYIFUP to represent them to help them challenge their detention.

   e. ICE OSUP check-ins

In some cases, ICE may decide not to execute a final removal order and might instead issue an “Order of Supervision,” or OSUP. A “post-order-of-removal” Order of Supervision may be issued under limited circumstances, such as when ICE determines the individual cannot be removed due to his or her country’s refusal to accept them, or when it is otherwise impracticable or contrary to the public interest to remove the individual. An Order of Supervision is considered to be a “humanitarian act” on the part of ICE, and may be available if the non-citizen is the primary care giver to a child with a medical condition, or if they themselves are receiving medical treatment for a serious condition, etc. The Order of Supervision will direct the non-citizen to appear at regular ICE check-ins, usually every few months and at least once a year.

Our clients who have been attending regular OSUP check-ins for years are now terrified to appear before ICE. One of our NYIFUP clients who was released from detention because he had a heart attack while in custody was recently hospitalized because of the stress and fear of deportation. Clients who previously checked in once or twice a year are now being asked to return in a couple of weeks or a month with their passports, ostensibly to facilitate deportation.

Our attorneys and office staff who are already overworked are doing their best to accompany our clients to OSUP check-ins, but we simply do not have the capacity to meet the need and quell the well-founded fears of our clients and threats of detention and deportation.

   f. In the Community

       i. Clamoring for Know Your Rights

Since the presidential election last fall, our office has received increasing requests from the community to present Know Your Rights trainings to the community. Since the first immigration Executive Order was announced we are now receiving near daily requests for assistance from elected officials, community-based organizations, city agencies, religious institutions and the press.

       ii. Daily Calls from Current and Former Clients

All of our attorneys and paralegals have seen a huge increase of panicked calls from our clients, current and former, about what to do if ICE is at their door, whether or not they can travel, what they should be doing with their U.S. citizen children, whether they should appear in court, requesting immigration legal services for their loved ones, and more.

In short, our communities are crisis and need the support of legal service providers more than ever. We want to continue to support all of our former and current clients, as well as serve more people, but our capacity is limited by the resources currently available to us.

IV. The Mayor’s Office’s Proposed Changes to NYIFUP

At the Executive Budget Hearing on May 11, 2017, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs testified that the Mayor intends to allocate $16 million to immigration legal services, with an as yet undetermined amount to be earmarked for deportation defense. They also indicated that the Mayor’s plan would exclude people who have any of the 170 criminal convictions listed in the City detainer law from representation under any baselined city funding, and potentially exclude people who are not New York City residents.

We are deeply concerned about the Mayor’s proposal to limit NYIFUP’s universal representation model and deny certain categories of people the right to an attorney. It is morally wrong to allow any person who is detained in New York City immigration courts to be excluded from representation. Once we start picking and choosing who will get an attorney, we have unequivocally altered the fundamental purpose of NYIFUP, which is to provide everyone with a chance to make their case to the court that is deciding their fate.

   a. The types of convictions the Mayor has used to exclude our fellow residents from representation are not necessarily serious or recent

The list of 170 excludable offenses is a very broad list and it includes many cases that are not serious. Some examples from Brooklyn Defender Services’ own experience are as follows:

Assault in the 2nd Degree:

  • An immigrant mother used corporal punishment, but did not injure her child, not knowing that the laws and cultural norms in the U.S. are different from her country of origin.
  • A client got frightened when a plainclothes police officer approached to arrest him. When the client ran, the officer fell and skinned his knee; the client was charged with assault 2nd because there was injury to an officer.
  • A client had a verbal argument with a 66-year-old man who didn’t like that the client was smoking a cigarette. During the argument, the client pushed the man away, and the man fell to the floor. When the man told police his leg hurt, client was charged with assault 2nd because the complainant was 65 or older.

Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the 3rd Degree:

  • A gun was found in the closet in one room of an apartment. Every resident of the home, including the tenant’s mother and grandmother, was arrested and charged with possession of the gun.

Burglary in the 2nd Degree:

  • A homeless client went into the lobby of a building and took a trash bag. Because a lobby is considered a “dwelling,” the client was charged with felony burglary of a dwelling.

Robbery in the 2nd Degree:

  • An after-school fight turned into a “robbery” when one of the participants in the melee dropped his phone and another person picked it up.

Robbery in the 3rd Degree:

  • A homeless man pursued a couple for two blocks after asking them for spare change. No weapon or actual threat is required for this crime, so police often charge a person with felony robbery for “aggressive begging.”

   b. There is no time limit on the Mayor’s stated policy, punishing even people with very old convictions, who may have a chance to fight deportation but would not be able to mount a defense.

For example, a father who was brought to the U.S. as a child, got into trouble as a teenager, and is now in his 40s with a job and children of his own, would be unable to make his case that he should be allowed to stay in the country under discretionary relief. Currently, a qualified NYIFUP attorney would ensure that every legal and factual issue is investigated and that all the relevant information is before the court.

By foreclosing legal representation in the first instance, anyone with a compelling story will be summarily deported without having a chance to explain their circumstances. Prior to NYIFUP, claims of this type simply did not succeed when people were unrepresented. In the example of the father above, he was never incarcerated, successfully completed probation, and attended college. He now works, pays taxes, and attends church. Without an attorney, this man would be summarily deported, at great loss to his family and community. Many of the most compelling cases fall within the technical definition presented by the Mayor and may not qualify for NYIFUP if his policy is enacted as stated.

   c. The proposed residency requirement would mean that many people who are intimately connected to the fabric of New York City would be excluded from representation simply because they cannot afford City rents

New York City is the life center for all of the surrounding areas. Our city benefits significantly from the labor and investment of the millions of people who come to our City every day to work. Manhattan alone sees its population double during the day, from 1.6 million to 3.1 million, because of the influx of commuters from the other boroughs and outside the City. As rents rise, more and more vulnerable groups are being forced out of their communities, out into Westchester or Long Island so that they can afford to put a roof over their families head, even if it means hours-long commute every day to the City to work. The vast majority of our clients are housing insecure, and many are homeless, or spend time at the homes of friends, because they cannot afford city rents. Many of our NYIFUP clients have children and family members who live in New York City, even if they themselves did not reside within the five boroughs when they were arrested by ICE.

The purpose of NYIFUP has always been to promote the safety and well-being of New York’s immigrant communities, including U.S.-citizen children of immigrants, with the recognition that helping adults who have the right to stay in this country and provide for their families helps the community as a whole. By limiting the program to people whose last address was located in the City, we damage the universal representation mandate that is premised on the recognition of the broader benefit that NYIFUP services provide to our immigrant communities.

V. The Critical Importance of NYIFUP’s Universal Representation Mandate

Universal representation protects the most vulnerable New Yorkers, helps to combat racial disparities, and sends a strong message to our immigrant communities that the City will support and protect them against federal policies that are explicitly and intentionally promulgated to exclude and deport immigrants of color from our country.

   a. The most vulnerable New Yorkers will pay the highest price without counsel

People who are the youngest, the oldest, the mentally ill, the sick and disabled are at the most risk if they do not have an advocate to look at their case and determine if they can avoid deportation, usually to a country that does not have medical care to meet their needs. If any bar to representation is created, then those who need an advocate the most will not even get an attorney to look into their situation. Currently, NYIFUP attorneys make sure that people who may not be fully competent due to their age, health or other circumstances are protected in the legal proceedings and in the community.

Even if a vulnerable person ends up being deported, NYIFUP staff are able to expedite the deportation, reducing an unnecessarily jail stay, and can also coordinate with the client’s family to make any arrangements possible, deliver identity documents or belongings, and notify relatives in the home country.

     b. Due to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the people most likely to be arrested, overcharged, placed in jail on bail and forced to accept a plea that would not minimize collateral consequences are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

It is important to view this policy in the context of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. A black or Latinx person is more likely to be arrested for something that a white person would not be arrested for. In the examples of 170 crimes that would be excluded under the Mayor’s proposal, it is unlikely that a white mother who used corporal punishment would be arrested. It is also unlikely that a group of kids fighting after school would result in arrests in a white community. Certain groups of people are more likely to be saddled with one of the convictions in the detainer list because of their ethnicity. This is compounded by the fact that the person is likely to be in jail solely because they cannot afford bail. If any resolution of the case becomes available that would allow the person to go home, he or she is likely to accept it even if there is a chance of an immigration consequence.

Under the Mayor’s proposal, attorneys who are ready, willing and able to make sure that after all that has already happened to the person, they are not unfairly deported, would decline to even interview the person to see if they have any remedy before the Immigration Judge. This compounds the dramatic racial disparities that exist right now rather than starting to even the playing field for people of color.

   c. New York City’s clear message to all New Yorkers that if their loved one is locked up and facing deportation, they will not be alone fighting their case is eviscerated by anything less than universal representation

Over the past four years, the NYIFUP providers have shown the immigrant community that NYC stands by them and will ensure that they and their loved ones are treated fairly and with dignity. Even in cases when we cannot avoid deportation for a client, the fact that the information is clearly explained, family members are apprised about what is happening, and community organizations are clear who to call for help sends a powerful message to the community about what New York City stands for.

With families, individuals and community-based organizations unable to assess eligibility, the work done to support the immigrant community will be lost. The uncertainly and anxiety of the immigrant community will result in unscrupulous people taking advantage of people, many of whom would have been eligible for NYIFUP.

VI. Conclusion

NYIFUP has never been more important. We are a human shield for our clients, doing everything in our power to show them compassion in a system that increasingly views our clients as deportable others – “criminals” or “aliens” with rights that can and are regularly trampled on. Even when we lose our client’s case, we provide them with the opportunity to share their story with the prosecutor and judge and make the case why they deserve to remain in this city with their family and community.

We ask that the City Council reject the Mayor’s proposal to eliminate NYIFUP’s mandate of universal representation and instead, continue the program’s eligibility requirements as they currently exist while increasing funding to meet the increased need of immigrant New Yorkers in detained deportation proceedings.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at 718-254-0700 ext. 434 or asaenz@bds.org. Thank you.