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State Funds Urged for Immigrant Legal Services

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Liberty Defense Project is funded by private foundations. (governorandrewcuomo/Flickr)
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Liberty Defense Project is funded by private foundations. (governorandrewcuomo/Flickr)
March 31, 2017

NEW YORK - With the state budget due on Saturday, advocates for immigrants in New York say Gov. Andrew Cuomo needs to commit public dollars for legal services.

For months, Cuomo has talked about giving immigrants access to free legal assistance, regardless of their immigration status. However, when he finally unveiled his Liberty Defense Project last week, the funding for the entire state was just $1 million from private foundations, with the state taking an administrative role. Thanu Yakupitiyage, senior communications manager for the New York Immigration Coalition, said that simply isn't enough.

"This is not what we asked for, and this is completely disappointing to immigrant communities," she said. "We're really relying on the governor to not just, like, talk the talk - but to walk the walk as well."

In a report this month, called "No Safe Harbor," the Immigration Coalition estimated the state needs to allocate $15 million to the project to meet the demand for services.

There are an estimated 850,000 undocumented immigrants in New York, and Yakupitiyage pointed out that, with the White House emphasizing immigration enforcement, the need for legal help is urgent and growing.

"We're already seeing New York's immigrants being impacted," she said. "There's been many, many cases of people upstate who have been detained, and these New Yorkers deserve representation, and they deserve good representation."

The Liberty Defense Project would depend largely on advocacy organizations, volunteer attorneys and law students to help in upstate communities with limited legal resources.

As the budget negotiations draw to a close in Albany, she said, advocates urged the governor and legislators to give the program the money it needs.

"We want New York to be seen as the beacon that all other states can look to," she said, "as a place that's really putting resources to support immigrants in a time where anti-immigrant hate has become the norm on the federal level."

The state of California is considering investing $12 million in an immigrant legal-defense fund.

The NYIC report is online at thenyic.org and the state's project website is ny.gov/programs/liberty-defense-project.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - NY