OPINION: How New York state can support migrants now

Pass the Access to Representation Act to establish the statewide right to a lawyer in immigration court

(Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

New York is unprepared to welcome new residents with the support they need to become thriving members of our community. A series of global challenges, an outdated immigration system, and the political exploitation of vulnerable people have brought us to this point.

Now, as we head into the 2024 legislative session, we’re seeking an investment of $150 million in immigration legal services in next year’s budget, and we are calling for the passage of the Access to Representation Act to establish the statewide right to a lawyer in immigration court in New York. In partnership with the CARE for Immigrant Families Coalition, which includes social justice advocates, labor unions, and legal organizations, we are redoubling efforts to transform this promise into a reality.

Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration has rightly identified the need to support legal assistance to immigrant New Yorkers as a central priority in the state’s budget. We’re calling on the state to invest in existing – and to establish new – immigration legal services in 2024. This includes funding to sustainably grow and train expert legal teams to respond to the needs of immigrant New Yorkers – both newly arrived and longtime residents. Communities across New York face interconnected needs for legal assistance, whether in immigration, housing or family court. For many caught in the intersections of these needs, this funding will be a lifeline. This funding must also establish long-term infrastructure to help ensure that New York City and New York state are ready to welcome immigrants in the future, as we have done throughout our history.

New York established the first statewide publicly funded deportation defense program, which is now replicated in states and jurisdictions all over the country. The Access to Representation Act would eliminate the risk of immigration legal services being zeroed out of the budget each year. Currently, not everyone facing deportation is guaranteed a lawyer if they cannot afford one, forcing many to navigate the complex legal system alone and defend themselves against an experienced government lawyer. This bill would ensure all New Yorkers facing deportation have access to legal representation. Multiple studies underscore the benefits of universal representation, with immigrants in over ten times more likely to establish their right to remain in the U.S. when they have lawyers on their side. For non-detained people, legal representation increases the likelihood of a successful outcome to 60%, compared to 17% without it. 

These investments and policy advancements would shield immigrants from fraudulent schemes exploiting their vulnerabilities and actively promote community safety and economic stability across New York. Families can stay united, essential workers can remain on the job, and business owners can continue investing in and supporting our communities. In pursuit of lasting change, better collaboration between state, local, and federal governments is essential to create a stronger and more resilient New York. 

New Yorkers’ compassion and support for both newcomers and longtime residents define the true spirit of our state. That support must be accompanied by commitments, through funding and legislation, to ensure our immigrant neighbors have the legal assistance needed to build and preserve stable lives and have the opportunity to provide for their families. Immigrants are integral partners in our economic growth who are ready to respond to New York’s labor shortage and revitalize communities facing stagnating economies and depopulation across the state. We must recognize the dignity of all New Yorkers and ensure our state is one in which they have the opportunity to thrive, support their loved ones, and contribute to our collective prosperity.