Thursday, March 30, 2017

NY Gov. Cuomo's Public-Private Legal Defense Fund For Immigrants Has Zero Public Funding

In November 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vowed to protect the State’s Immigrants from the Trump Administration—metaphorically offering to sacrifice himself before he’d let a single Immigrant get Deported, he was widely praised for standing up to the President.

“If there is a move to deport immigrants, I say then start with me!” he declared in the November 20th speech. To back his rhetoric, the Governor also introduced a “first of its kind public-private legal defense fund” to provide Immigrants in the State with Legal help, regardless of whether or not they’re documented or could pay.

The Fund made another appearance in the Governor’s State of the State address, with Cuomo promising to “launch Empire State Immigrant Defense Fund to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to representation and due process, regardless of citizenship status.”

Immigration Advocates hoped the Governor would invest substantial State Funds into the initiative, but there was no mention of the Defense Fund in the Governor’s Budget, suggesting that a large Public investment was not forthcoming.

The Administration finally unveiled the program, now called the Liberty Defense Fund. The initiative would spend “more than $1 Million” in “Public and Private investment” to “provide services to meet the urgent legal needs” of New York Immigrants. In fact, the program is budgeted at $1 million and the money comes from two Private Foundations, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford Foundation.

The Fund will work with some 182 “Advocacy organizations and Legal entities,” according to the announcement “to provide pro bono Legal and additional resources for Immigrants threatened by recent changes in immigration policies.”

At present, there will be no large Public Funds directed exclusively towards the program, the “Public-Private” set-up refers to the fact that the Foundation money will be Administered by the State’s Office for New Americans.

Estimates from Advocates and Immigration Experts vary on how much it would take to really cover the Legal costs of Immigrants facing Deportation, but tend to exceed $1 million dollars, and Private Foundation money is not guaranteed to last. The New York Immigrant Coalition, which has officially partnered with the Governor’s office, said the State needed to invest at least $15 million to meet demand. Make the Road New York estimates that $19.1 million is needed to supply Immigrants with adequate Legal services.

Public investment in Immigrant Defense is hardly unprecedented, with Los Angeles County allocating $3 million dollars in Public funds to a Public-Private partnership, and the State of California is considering a $12 million investment in an Immigrant Fund.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” says Stephen Yale-Loehr, an Immigration Professor at Cornell, of Albany’s plan. “It’s a good first step, but we have a long way to go towards legal representation at all immigrant proceedings.” Yale-Loehr says there are worthwhile elements in the program, like a “know-your-rights” Campaign that would send Volunteer Lawyers around the State.

But Advocates hoped for more.

The New York Immigration Coalition, listed as an Official Partner of the Liberty Defense Fund, issued a scathing critique of the lack of Public funds in a press release, noting, "There looks like there’s not a single public dollar that goes to legal defense, which stands in sharp contrast to other states that are leading the way against the anti-immigrant onslaught from the federal government. It’s simply not enough to rally private law-firms and foundation support: this project will not succeed without significant public investment.”

Steve Choi, Executive Director of NYIC, says that the group will continue to work with the Governor to implement the program and make sure it succeeds: "We will also continue to fight hard for a major public investment."

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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