A legal aid program, funded by the city, helps immigrants

In 2020, the city increased funding for a program that supports immigrations facing deportation by almost five times, on average from the year prior.

New York City Family Unity Project is the country’s first such public program, started in New York City. The project began in 2015 and has since received over $71 million from the city. On average, each year, the program costs the city a little over $2.7 million.

The city council allocated over $371 million in discretionary funding in 2021. Another $5 million worth of projects were categorized as pending for approval, as of April 22.

Each year, council members allocate these funds to nonprofits to fill gaps in city agencies' services, according to the funding policy and procedures guidelines.

The top five biggest recepients include three non-profit law firms. Together they received $16.6 million for the Family Unity Project. The program provides legal support to detained immigrants who cannot afford an attorney.

The top five recipients received nearly $55 million

City University of New York

Brooklyn Defender

Services

Bronx Defenders

$26.3 million

$5.7 million

$6.08 million

New York Public Library

Legal Aid Society

$5.6 million

$11.08 million

Source: NYC Open Data

The top five recipients received nearly $55 million

City University of New York

Bronx Defenders

Brooklyn Defender

Services

$5.7 million

$26.3 million

$6.08 million

New York Public Library

Legal Aid Society

$5.6 million

$11.08 million

Source: NYC Open Data

The top five recipients received nearly $55 million

City University of New York

Bronx

Defenders

Brooklyn

Defender Services

$26.3 million

$5.7 million

$6.08 million

New York Public Library

Legal Aid Society

$5.6 million

$11.08 million

Source: NYC Open Data

The program is housed by three non-profit firms — Brooklyn Defenders, Bronx Defenders and The Legal Aid Society.

These three firms are among the top five recipients of city council’s discretionary funding for various social services and immigration-related programs, including this one. Together, they received around $23 million in 2021, with the biggest part — over $11 million — going to The Legal Aid Society.

Enforcement levels rose “dramatically” under former US President Donald Trump’s administration. In response, the city increased funding to the program, according to Allison Wilkinson, Supervising Attorney at The Legal Aid Society.

From having at most six cases to work on each week, attorneys in the program started seeing over twenty cases every day, Wilkinson said.

Between 2008 to 2020 — the latest available data – the number of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement removals each year has been over 322,000 people each year, on average, according to annual reports on the agency’s website. The highest number was in 2012 with over 400,000 removals.

In New York, home to 2 million non-citizen immigrants at risk of deportation, there are currently seven detention centers operating.

Shabel Castro and Deluwara Ahmed, staff attorneys at Brooklyn Defenders both come from immigrant families and have personal ties to the mission of the program. Ahmed said she worked with immigrant youth communities in Bronx before law school and Castro worked with undocumented students during college. Since joining the firm, they’ve both exclusively worked with the program.

They explained the process to representation from when an individual gets arrested. When someone gets arrested by ICE, they’re given a hearing date before an immigration judge, which is not always immediate, according to Castro.

From here on, the three firms pick up cases that they would work on and assign them to attorneys internally. The lawyers who work on these cases are often the first and only ones to meet people when they’re in ICE’s custody.

“It feels like you get to know people’s entire family,” Ahmed said. “The interactions can be very intimate … we meet people’s families, spouses and children. Sometimes it feels as though you’re entering people’s most traumatic, most private parts.”

Being at the forefront of the program has been a rewarding experience for Castro, she said, especially getting to know people’s personal stories and narratives.

“When people are placed in these [deportation] situations, their stories are minimized and put in a limited perspective,” Castro said. “Many of our clients have been here many years and we want to reinforce that their stories do matter. Their community and family ties do matter.”

When a client is first assigned to an attorney, the first step is to see “if they’re being properly charged as a removable,” Wilkinson said.

Often the attorneys find that certain crimes don’t qualify people to be removed from the country, she said. But, if the lawyers do find that their client is in fact “removeable,” they look for another defense for relief, Wilkinson added.

“Immigration law is best thought of as a menu,” she said. The firm looks at how long their clients have been in the country, their history and such from a slate of options, she added. Everything from their clients’ community ties to immigration status is studied.

“Our goal is to figure out as many eligible relief paths as possible,” she said.

Someone who has been on a green card for even decades could suddenly get picked up by ICE for crimes committed years ago. These could be anything from minor drug charges to more serious offenses.

Once on detention, there are two criteria to be eligible to receive representation with the program. First being that the individual’s income should be 200 percent below the federal poverty guideline.

The second criteria is to look at the reason they’ve been arrested which is called a “criminal carve out”. The “criminal carve out” in simpler terms is a list of crimes, detained under which, the city will turn people to ICE’s custody. There has been growing momentum for the city to rid the program of this filter making more people eligible for representation.

The three providers use their own private funding to represent detainees subject to the Criminal Carve-Out, allowing them to maintain universal representation in immigration detention cases, Wilkinson said.

Being in a state that has the political will to support immigrants via such a program is greatly beneficial, Wilkinson said, pointing to a five-year old study that assessed the merits of the program.

The challenge in replicating the program to other states is in states “where there’s no political will,” Wilkinson said. “There are more detention centers in certain states and it’ll take a nationally coordinated movement to make such programs more widely available.”

“We get to make some really deep connections. Often clients show us their family photos, children’s drawings and letters … When you have a win, it goes back to the name of the program. It’s all about keeping families together,” Ahmad said.

If you'd like to check the code for this project, click here!