New York Immigrant Family Unity Project provides free public defense

Immigration reform is a major issue in New York, where many documented and undocumented immigrants make their home after entering the country. Undocumented immigrants often have the chance to fight for a green card in immigration court, but their chance of obtaining one is much higher if they have an attorney. That’s why advocacy groups and the city government are working hard to make sure that immigrants receive fair representation in court.

Immigration courts are not part of the criminal court system, so immigrants who cannot afford a private attorney are often forced to represent themselves in court. This can be a particularly difficult task if there’s a language barrier between the defendant and the judge and government attorneys. Free legal services are available for people who can’t afford them on their own, but undocumented immigrants often have trouble finding a lawyer willing to represent them for free. According to the American Immigration Council, about 44 percent of immigration court cases in 2012 involved a defendant who had no legal representation.

That’s why New York City has developed a program that helps undocumented children fight for their right to citizenship. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project was established in November 2013 as a collaboration between NYC judges, U.S. immigration reform advocacy groups and pro-bono lawyers. Those who are interested in obtaining the services of a free public defender in court can apply for the program. They must also pass a screening that verifies they are in fact unable to pay for an attorney.

Right now, the project is under a tight budget, and current funding means it expects to represent nearly 200 immigrants in 2014. The organizers hope to help more immigrants obtain an attorney in New York City in the coming years, and it aims to expand to other cities throughout the country. The ultimate goal is to develop a federally funded project that provides access to free legal representation.