BY COUNCILMAN RORY LANCMAN
The right to due process is at the heart of America’s legal system. We believe that in a court of law, every person’s legal rights must be protected and every person charged with a crime must have access to counsel. While due-process rights are respected in criminal court, it is a different story in immigration court, where individuals detained and facing deportation have no right to counsel.
Four years ago, the New York City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, decided to take action to fix this injustice. We created the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), a first-of-its-kind program to provide legal representation to all immigrant New Yorkers who are detained facing deportation. With the development and continued expansion of NYIFUP, New York City sent a message that no one should be deported because they do not have access to legal counsel.
NYIFUP has proven to be a tremendous success for New York City. The legal services provided by the city’s public defenders help individuals and families navigate the turbulent world of immigration law.
But instead of building on NYIFUP’s successes, the mayor is threatening changes that will fundamentally undermine the program. Last month, the mayor announced that New York City would no longer provide legal counsel to immigrants facing deportation who have already been convicted of certain crimes.
For all the mayor’s talk about standing up to Trump, here is reality: Denying immigrant New Yorkers access to counsel will further fuel Trump’s deportation machine.
The absence of counsel will force individuals with no legal expertise, and often with significant language barriers, to present a case for staying in the country against a skilled government attorney. That is fundamentally unfair.
The mayor’s insistence on picking and choosing which immigrant New Yorkers are worthy of legal counsel is unjust. Representation in immigration court can make a big difference—and for most individuals facing deportation, it is their only chance to receive a fair hearing. As a society, we want to make sure the law has been preserved for everyone and that no one has been removed from the country by mistake. The only way that is possible is through a guaranteed right to counsel.
If New York City is going to be a sanctuary city, then there can be no exemptions about which immigrants are eligible for NYIFUP. Every immigrant detained away from their family and facing deportation, regardless of financial status or criminal record, should have the right to an attorney. Period.
We are fortunate that Governor Cuomo is committed to upholding due process for all. His plan, unlike the mayor’s, covers legal services for all detained immigrants facing deportation. The mayor should follow the governor’s lead and ensure NYIFUP imposes no restrictions on whom it helps.