4 mins read

NY immigrants need legal services, healthcare, advocates say

ALBANY — Immigration advocates want more from Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to address the rights of people seeking shelter in New York amid an ongoing influx from the southern border and war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Hochul’s proposal mainly extends funding to existing programs, such as those run by the state‘s Office of New Americans, that provide free legal and employment services for asylum-seekers, and refugee resettlement programs, which partners with nonprofits statewide to house refugees.

Programs that provide employment training and help with job placement will also receive more funding, according to the 278-page briefing book that accompanied Hochul’s State of the State speech on Tuesday.

But her plans didn’t address the major reforms that advocates have championed heading into the legislative session: a statewide right to legal representation for people facing deportation.

The bill backed by the New York Immigration Coalition would make New York the first state in the nation to ensure immigrants have a lawyer when undergoing frequent labyrinthine immigration court proceedings. Because those courts deal with civil cases, people are not guaranteed a lawyer the same way they would be in a criminal court.

“When they go into these proceedings, ordinary folks are up against a government-trained attorney whose sole purpose is to get them out of the country,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the coalition.

According to a 2018 analysis published in the Fordham Law Review, undetained asylum-seeking immigrants with a lawyer won in 74 percent of their cases, while those without a lawyer won only 13 percent of their cases.

State Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz, who represents parts of Queens with high concentrations of undocumented immigrants, is sponsoring what’s been called the Access to Representation Act. “We want to take advantage of immigrant labour, but when it comes to defending their rights, when it comes to giving them a chance at a fair life in the United States, we’re saying ‘You pay for it yourself,’” Cruz said at a Capitol rally earlier this week that attracted other lawmakers and about 100 advocates.

The legislative push comes as the state, along with much of the country, faces a wave of immigration driven by people previously deterred by pandemic-era border closures and facing increased risks in their home countries. The influx is also fueled by ongoing humanitarian crises in countries like Ukraine and Afghanistan, said Jennifer Rizzo-Choi, who heads the International Institute of Buffalo.

Rizzo-Choi echoed the sentiments of advocates who said Hochul’s proposals fell short of the broader reforms they had been hoping for, but said the governor’s vow to fund existing services was a good sign. And she’s interested to see what policies the governor’s office returns in the coming weeks, when Hochul’s full executive budget proposal will be rolled out prior to negotiations with legislative leaders.

“We want to be supportive,” Rizzo-Choi said. “We don’t want people to end up homeless and without food. We want to be able to provide a social service net for them. And that comes down to funding.”

Advocates also want reforms that would expand basic health care coverage for all low-income New Yorkers regardless of immigration status or age, as well as an expansion of language access. Last year, the state budget included an expansion of Medicaid coverage for undocumented immigrants over age 65.

The dangers of language barriers statewide was underscored by the death of Congolese immigrant Abdul Sharifu during the late-December blizzard in Buffalo, said Flor Reyes-Silvestre, a Buffalo-area paralegal who linked the fatality to Sharifu’s failure to understand warnings that were primarily broadcast in English.

Sharifu left his apartment Saturday night to get groceries; he was found dead later that same evening, according to The Buffalo News.

“Not being able to understand the important advisories and warnings cost Sharifu his life, and that is heartbreaking to acknowledge,” Reyes-Silvestre said.

Related Posts