The ongoing migrant crisis has a coalition of New York State elected officials, advocates, and asylum seekers pushing for the passage of the Access to Representation Act (ARA). The bill will guarantee statewide access to lawyers for immigrants at risk of deportation who cannot afford it.

Currently, asylum seekers don’t have the right to a lawyer in immigration court because they’re not technically criminal defendants, though they face some of the same hardships. New York State would be the first to enact such a right if passed.  

Assemblymember Catalina Cruz and Senator Brad Hoylman sponsored the ARA bill in the Assembly and Senate. Cruz, a former lawyer and undocumented person, represents Jackson Heights, Corona, and Elmhurst in Queens. She said that these are neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of undocemented New York residents and immigrants. Over the past three years, Cruz has worked with advocates to increase the funding for immigrant legal and social services in the state’s budget. 

“What we’re doing is truly caring for immigrant communities,”said Cruz at a press conference at City Hall Park on Wed, Nov. 30. 

According to New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), having a lawyer is not only a “cornerstone” of democracy, it makes a significant difference in determining if a person will remain in the U.S. Immigrants in detention with representation are over 10 times more likely to prove their right to remain in the U.S. and seven times more likely to get released, said NYIC. 

“Many immigrants don’t have the same guaranteed right as everyone else,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of NYIC. “People who face deportation are not guaranteed a right to counsel; instead those who can afford to hire an attorney are forced to fend for themselves against a trained government attorney. Navigating courts alone can be an almost impossible task for anyone, let alone newly arrived immigrants and those who do not speak English.” 

Awawdeh said that without access to legal representation, immigrants are far more likely to lose their legal cases, “be ripped from their loved ones,” and be deported back to countries where their lives and livelihoods may remain in jeopardy. 

Some at the press conference spoke about their struggles to find an adequate lawyer that would maintain contact with them and actually assist on cases. Some asylum seekers spoke out against fraudulent legal schemes and scams. All spoke about the pervading fear that comes with the overhanging threat of being deported. 

One El Salvadorian man said that he attempted to represent himself after being detained and was denied. He’s currently appealing his case. “It’s so important to have an attorney because you’re facing an attorney and also a district attorney,” he said through a translator present. “You face a lot of different questions and alot of the proof that we are bringing from our countries, it was in Spanish. So if we provide those documents in Spanish, they are denied.” 

Yimy Benitez is from Honduras and identifies as nonbinary (they/them). Benitez paid a private attorney $450 for an initial consultation in 2016. “The answer they gave me was that they had no solution and they suggested that I should leave the country voluntarily so that I will not have any problems with the immigration laws of this country,” said Benitez via translator. “I know people close to me such as family and friends who have paid a lot of money to attorneys just to consult or request advice on their cases and they have obtained the same response.”

Ilze Theilmann is a former lawyer and a volunteer at Team TLC NYC, a grassroots organization for asylum seekers and migrants. She’s been on the frontline at Port Authority assisting with the buses on asylum seekers that were sent from Southern states to New York for the last several months. 

Theilmann said that there are rights that immigrants are guaranteed if they comply, but language barriers, lack of representation and lack of knowledge of the U.S. courts system constantly leaves people open to deportation by default. Within weeks to months if certain applications and appointments aren’t made, asylum seekers who get through the border inadvertently waive their rights without assistance. She said it’s next to impossible for people to prioritize getting a lawyer when they have clothing, housing, food and health needs to worry about when they first arrive in “survival mode.” 

“There’s very important instructions on how they are supposed to comply and keep those rights alive but are in English in small print on a paper they’re handed,” said Theilmann about the paperwork she’s seen given to people at the border. “The right to counsel is the key.”

Theilmann said that it’s as crucial for an asylum seeker to have a lawyer as it is for a criminal defendant because in both instances freedom and livelihood could be removed. 

This comes as Axios recently broke the news that U.S. officials are considering barring some asylum seekers because Title 42, a public health border policy enacted during the pandemic, is ending. Immigrant rights advocates bashed the Biden administration for potentially walking back promises made about reform. 

Kate Jastram, director of Policy and Advocacy at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, said she was astonished that the president would revive “failed Trump era policies” that punish people for seeking asylum.

“We are particularly disturbed by reports that the administration might try barring from asylum those who cannot apply for protection before reaching U.S. soil. When the previous administration attempted the same, the policy was struck down as illegal in multiple federal lawsuits,” said Jastram in a statement. “President Biden knows better.”

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics in New York City for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting:

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