By KIRK SEMPLE
In 2010, a federal judge in New York City convened a task force of prominent immigration lawyers, academics and advocates to tackle a longstanding problem: the dearth of legal representation for immigrants fighting deportation.
Now, after extensive debate and research, this group has developed a plan to create a network of legal service providers to represent all low-income immigrants in the region who have been detained and face deportation.
The network would be the first of its kind in the country, say its proponents.
“While a number of states have entered the immigration arena in ways generally hostile to immigrants, a more enlightened New York City and New York State could be among the first to use state and local power to preserve the rights of immigrants, to keep immigrant families intact, and to retain the vibrant immigrant character of its diverse communities,” said a report that outlines the plan, called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project.
The report is to be released on Wednesday.
The task force, which was organized by Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, determined that 60 percent of detained immigrants in the New York region did not have counsel at the time their cases were completed. In addition, 18 percent of detained immigrants with representation had successful outcomes in their cases, compared with 3 percent of detained immigrants without counsel.
Unlike in criminal proceedings, defendants in immigration court have no constitutional right to a court-appointed lawyer. Ignorance, fear, language barriers and poverty also can keep legal counsel out of the reach of immigrants.
But having a lawyer is no guarantee that an immigrant will be well-represented. In a 2011 report by the group, judges in the region said legal assistance in nearly half the cases they heard was deemed “inadequate” or “grossly inadequate.”
The impact of inadequate representation is felt most acutely in cities with large immigrant populations, like New York City, immigration experts say. Deportation can fracture families and communities and put additional stress on city and state social programs as deportees’ dependents who remain behind are forced to seek help.
“Put simply, the City and State of New York bear a heavy cost as a result of the immigrant representation crisis,” according to the new report.
The proposed project would seek to provide legal representation for all low-income immigrants being held in detention centers in Manhattan, Newark and Elizabeth, N.J., as well as for those facing deportation while being held in New York State prisons.
The researchers estimated that the network would help about 1,800 clients a year.
A screening would determine eligibility according to income guidelines, and all qualified immigrants would receive not only a qualified lawyer but also support services like interpreters, mental-health counseling and social service guidance.
The project would rely on a small group of immigration legal service providers — private law firms as well as nonprofit organizations — selected through a bidding process and would be overseen by a coordinating organization.
The plan’s supporters have proposed that the system be publicly financed; they estimate that it would cost about $6 million a year.
Peter L. Markowitz, a clinical associate professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and co-chairman of the task force that conceived the plan, said he and his colleagues had not yet discussed the project’s feasibility with government officials.
“We certainly haven’t gone down that road yet,” he said. “I’m sort of eager to begin that discussion with the launching of the report.”
More than 20 of the city’s leading immigrant advocacy organizations have declared their support for the project.
“Given that it is often difficult for people to understand the charges against them, much less be able to answer them, it is an utter fantasy to believe that a system where almost half of the defendants have no legal assistance is producing just and fair results,” said J. C. Salyer, staff lawyer for the Arab-American Family Support Center in Brooklyn.