This month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched the nation’s first public-private immigrant legal-defense initiative, called the Liberty Defense Project. New York will become the first state in the nation to ensure that every immigrant held in detention has a lawyer, that all immigrants will have counsel in deportation hearings, and that any immigrant seeking asylum on American soil will have legal representation to make his/her case.
Indeed, the governor stunned advocates around the country last month when he announced that an unprecedented $10 million would be allotted to immigrant legal defense in this year’s state budget. This week, the governor followed up with a video featuring celebrities and highlighting the initiative, in which he says that “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.” Directly singling out President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, the video states that the Liberty Defense Project will “provide legal assistance to immigrants experiencing prosecution by the federal government.”
“During these stormy times, it’s critical for all New Yorkers to have access to their full rights under the law,” Cuomo said when he announced the initiative. “The first-of-its-kind Liberty Defense Project will provide legal support to protect immigrants and ensure this state is living up to the values embodied by the Lady in Our Harbor.”
Just how much of a difference will this drastic increase in legal representation make for immigrants in New York? In a report released just this month, the Center for American Progress estimates that immigrants appearing in proceedings with counsel are 14 times more likely to win their cases than those appearing without counsel. In New York State, only one in 15 immigrants (6.7 percent) is able to file the necessary papers without counsel. Whether an immigrant has counsel often has life-or-death consequences, as those who are deported are frequently at risk of torture, abuse or death. The problem has intensified under President Trump’s policies emboldening Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to apprehend immigrants.
Some have called the lack of legal representation for immigrants immoral, as it means we are effectively deporting immigrant children to die. While, according to the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, immigrants have the right to counsel, U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence has established that the state has no obligation to pay for that counsel. This has caused a due-process crisis in the courts, with backlogs of immigrants left defenseless and voiceless.
Last week, an event in support of the governor’s Liberty Defense Project at New York Law School drew hundreds of lawyers and immigration advocates from around the state. Jenifer Rajkumar, Cuomo’s director of Immigration Affairs and Special Counsel, described the project in an email to partners as an initiative to bring together “New York’s top legal talent” in what she called “a statewide effort to protect immigrants.” The initiative has already amassed a statewide coalition of 230 private-sector law firms, legal departments, bar associations and advocacy organizations. The governor’s event was packed with hundreds of lawyers and advocates from around the state eager to support the groundbreaking initiative.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is one of the organizations partnering on the governor’s Liberty Defense Project. Evan Bernstein, the New York regional director of the ADL, said that the partnership reflects the ADL’s commitment to “fighting tirelessly for those making their own exodus from war and oppression,” and remarked that “historically we have called for just and humanitarian immigration policies.”
Of note, the ADL has supported immigrants since 1958, when it published President John F. Kennedy’s book A Nation of Immigrants, calling for nondiscriminatory immigration policies. Bernstein went on to applaud the governor’s enormous $10 million budgetary allotment to the project.
Heavy hitters in the legal and advocacy communities have quickly lent their support to the popular project. The New York State Bar Association has committed to train and recruit attorneys to represent immigrants. In June at New York Law School, the Liberty Defense Project will host a training course along with the New York State Bar that will train lawyers in every step of a deportation defense case. Prestigious white-shoe law firms Skadden Arps, Davis Polk and Debevoise have also joined the initiative, as have Columbia Law School, CUNY Law and New York Law, and many others. Private foundations Ford and Carnegie have contributed an additional $1 million to the governor’s project.
In a polarized national environment with calls from the right to build a wall and crack down on immigration enforcement, and opposite calls from the left to pass the DREAM Act and provide drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants, Gov. Cuomo’s Liberty Defense Project finds a common ground. While many cannot agree on numerous aspects of immigration policy, almost everyone can agree that anyone who lands on American soil deserves his/her day in court. And by ensuring those basic due-process rights, the governor’s project starts from that place of humanity and agreement.