Advocates and Lawmakers Rally to Demand Right to Counsel In Immigration Court and $150M for Legal Services Funding

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Press Contact Zameena Meijia |

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Albany, NY—Today, elected officials joined the CARE for Immigrant Families coalition, legal services providers, and asylum seekers at the New York State Capitol to rally in support of a $150 million investment in immigrant legal services. This investment is critical to help ensure that families remain together, and that recent arrivals have the resources to fight their immigration case and gain access to work permits.

Advocates also called for passage of the Access to Representation Act (ARA), a first-in-the-nation bill which would establish a right to counsel in immigration court, extending the same representation rights already available in criminal proceedings. The ARA has received support from the New York State Bar Association, major labor unions, 125 non-profits and community based organizations, and more than 100 elected officials across the state including Attorney General Letitia James.

Immigrant New Yorkers who can’t afford to hire an attorney are currently forced to represent themselves in court—regardless of age or language abilities — against trained government attorneys. Studies show that immigrants with legal representation are 10.5 times more likely to win their right to remain in the United States, making it more important than ever for legislative leaders to fund legal services and help keep immigrant families intact. With an estimated backlog of 330,000 pending immigration cases in New York, lawmakers must prioritize boosting capacity for legal service providers and investing in infrastructure that delivers long-term sustainability to our legal system.

Sponsored by State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal and Assembly Member Catalina Cruz, the passage of the ARA will help thousands of New Yorkers stay in their homes with their families, contributing to our economy, and striving toward the American dream.

“Immigration is a central part of New York’s story, yet our immigration courts are in a state of disarray. There are currently around 330,000 cases pending in immigration courts in New York State and less than half of those people have lawyers to represent them. This is unacceptable, as it goes against the spirit of the Sixth Amendment and the New York State Constitutional right to an attorney. The need for a permanent investment in our immigration system, and in our immigration legal system, is needed now more than ever. We can do this by passing the Access to Representation Act (S999A) and guaranteeing that all those in New York State facing legal challenges related to their immigration status do so with the assistance of legal representation. Those who come to our country seeking a better life deserve a fair shot at making their case to stay here,” said Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, District 47.

"Every day thousands of immigrants statewide face the possibility of deportation without due process of law and a meaningful opportunity to be heard. That's because our immigration court system doesn't offer an equal opportunity for justice for low-income people. If they cannot afford a lawyer, they are left to fight a complex immigration system on their own. While immigration law is civil in nature, the consequences of violating the law are the same as those faced by criminal defendants- loss of liberty, forced separation from family, or worse- death when forced to return to a country that persecutes their very existence. The Access to Representation Act seeks to right this wrong by ensuring that effective legal services are provided to everyone, not simply those who are able to afford them," said Assembly Member Catalina Cruz, District 39.

"Asylum seekers and immigrants across New York State would be greatly served by trained legal counsel in immigration court who would help to provide fair counsel, expedite proceedings and end the backlog of more than 330,000 immigration cases. We need to pass the Access to Representation Act so every individual and family navigating the complexities of immigration court has access to competent legal counsel and an opportunity to achieve work authorization and self-sufficiency,” said Senator John Liu, District 16.

“This is a pivotal opportunity to ensure justice and fairness for immigrants facing legal proceedings in New York. This bill upholds the fundamental principle of due process for all individuals. Supporting this legislation is not just about legal representation; it is about safeguarding the rights and dignity of immigrants within our communities,” said Senator Pete Harckham, District 40.

“The right to an attorney is one of the cornerstones of our justice system, and immigration court should be no exception. I’m a proud co-sponsor of the Access to Representation Act because financial barriers should not prevent someone from living in our country. This bill upholds due process and fairness in all court proceedings, and ensures that everyone is provided the same resources and assistance in navigating our legal system,” said Senator Jeremy Cooney, District 56.

"Granting immigrants the right to counsel is critical to ensure they receive due process and appropriate assistance navigating the complexities of immigration court,” said Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi, District 28.

“Immigrants are fundamental to the history and identity of New York, and they deserve the same basic right to representation as other New Yorkers,” said Assembly Member Grace Lee, District 65. “As the daughter of immigrants and the representative for large immigrant communities in Lower Manhattan, I am proud to stand with the CARE for Immigrant Families coalition to call for the inclusion of the ARA in this year’s state budget.”

“Due process of law is a fundamental tenet of our constitution and justice system. However, unlike in criminal proceedings where defendants are given a lawyer if they cannot afford one, immigrants do not have a right to a government-paid attorney in immigration court, even when facing deportation. As a result, many low-income residents are left without representation. I support this allocation of funds to meet an urgent, long-term legal and social service need. In my District, there are thousands of new Americans who are working tirelessly, following the American dream of a better life for their families. I am hopeful that the final budget will include this allocation to allow them to realize their dream,” said Assembly Member Chris Burdick, District 93.

“Few principles are as important as the right to due process. Ensuring due process in immigration court is just as important as due process in any other scenario. The outcome of an immigration case can have the same impact on a family as the outcome in a criminal case, as communities in my district can attest. To ensure stability in our communities and prevent outcomes like the wrongful deportation of legal residents and even citizens, we must pass a law ensuring the right to representation and include funding for it in our final budget,” said Assembly Member Dana Levenberg, District 95.

“It is imperative that Governor Hochul and our State Legislature listen to the mounting calls to invest $150 million in the Access to Representation Act,” said Murad Awawdeh, President and CEO, New York Immigration Coalition. “This milestone legislation would give immigrant families a fighting chance to remain together and continue contributing to the vibrancy of our state. Lawmakers have a historic opportunity to meet the urgent needs of new arrivals and longtime New Yorkers by boosting the capacity of legal service providers to get more immigrants on the path to legalization, work authorizations and self-sufficiency. Immigrants have played a crucial role in the growth of New York’s economy throughout history, and now is no different. We’re calling on the Governor and our State leaders to include the Access to Representation Act in the final budget to make our legal system truly equitable and just for all.”

“New York’s lawmakers have repeatedly referred to the increase in the number of migrants seeking asylum as a ‘crisis’, but the only reason this is a ‘crisis’ is because our government is making it one,” said Camille Mackler, Executive Director, Immigrant ARC. “Our State administration has chosen to respond to this moment by putting legal service providers in an endless cycle of rapid response instead of funding long-term immigration legal services. It is clear that providing access to long-term immigration services is the best way to ensure that immigrants can obtain long-term status, work authorization, and access to resources that will include them in our cultural, civic, and economic life.”

“Asylum seekers and long-term New Yorkers face a harsh reality without legal representation: the persistent threat of family separation, the fear of deportation, and the constant anxiety about their future while navigating a highly complex court system alone. The state needs to take bold action to meet this urgent moment. As budget negotiations continue, lawmakers must allocate $150 million for immigration legal services in addition to passing the Access to Representation Act. This is an investment in family unity, economic stability, and fairness for thousands of New Yorkers,” said Shayna Kessler, Associate Director for Advocacy, Vera Institute of Justice's Advancing Universal Representation initiative.

“Thank you to the Legislature for understanding the great need for civil legal aid in immigrant communities, but $74 million is simply not enough. New York State is currently facing a shortage of immigration lawyers, and there are so many immigrant New Yorkers in need of our legal assistance. The full $150 million is needed to train law students, and to recruit and train passionate immigration attorneys who can support all immigrant New Yorkers in immigration court,” said Sal F. Curran, Esq., Volunteer Lawyers Project of Central New York.


About the Campaign for Access, Representation, and Equity (CARE) for Immigrant Families: The Vera Institute of Justice, the New York Immigration Coalition, and Immigrant ARC lead CARE for Immigrant Families, a coalition of more than 100 leading organizations, religious groups, and elected officials united to pass the Access to Representation Act. The bill (S999A/A170A) will guarantee access to legal representation for immigrants at risk of deportation in New York. Sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, the legislation would be the first in the nation to create a statewide right to legal representation for people facing deportation who cannot afford it, whether they have recently arrived in the state or have been New Yorkers for decades.

About Vera Institute of Justice: The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and policy experts working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. For more information, visit

About Immigrant ARC: Immigrant ARC is a collaborative of over 80 organizations and professional associations providing legal services to New York’s immigrant communities throughout the State. Born out of the legal effort at JFK Airport during the Muslim Travel Ban in 2017, our mission is clear: to mobilize New York State’s legal service providers by facilitating communication and information sharing to better support our immigrant communities; to organize and respond to issues as they arise by coordinating resources and fostering best practices among providers; and to resist and challenge anti-immigrant policies by shining a light on injustices and confronting inequalities faced by our communities in the legal system. For more information, visit

About New York Immigration Coalition: The New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) is an umbrella policy & advocacy organization that represents over 200 immigrant and refugee rights groups throughout New York. The NYIC serves one of the largest and most diverse newcomer populations in the United States. The multi-racial and multi-sector NYIC membership base includes grassroots and nonprofit community organizations, religious and academic institutions, labor unions, as well as legal and socioeconomic justice organizations. The NYIC not only establishes a forum for immigrant groups to voice their concerns, but also provides a platform for collective action to drive positive social change. Since its founding in 1987, the NYIC has evolved into a powerful voice of advocacy by spearheading innovative policies, promoting and protecting the rights of immigrant communities, improving newcomer access to services, developing leadership and capacity, expanding civic participation, and mobilizing member groups to respond to the fluctuating needs of immigrant communities.

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