New York Must Invest In Immigration Legal Services, Pass the Access to Representation Act

First-in-the-nation bill would establish a right to legal counsel in immigration proceedings

February 13, 2024
Media Contact: Zameena Mejia,

Albany, NY—Today, elected officials joined the CARE for Immigrant Families coalition at the New York State Capitol to rally in support of a $150 million investment in immigrant legal services to ease pressure on the backlog of cases and ensure recent arrivals can swiftly apply for work. 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 protections already available in criminal proceedings.

The ARA has received support from the New York State Bar Association, major labor unions 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 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 325,000 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," Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal said.

"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 State Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz.

“It is imperative that Governor Hochul and our State Legislature heed the calls to pass the Access to Representation Act and deliver much-needed stability to our justice system,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the 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 great state. Lawmakers have a historic opportunity to boost the capacity of legal service providers and finally build sorely needed infrastructure to reduce the mounting backlog of pending cases. We call on the Governor and the State Legislature to commit a $150 million investment into legal services and that the Access to Representation Act is included in the final budget to make our legal system truly equitable and just for all.”

“Today’s urgent moment requires urgent action. Our call for greater investments in services for the immigrant community is not just about numbers, it's about safeguarding the lives of countless New York families as well as our state's economic future. Without legal representation, asylum seekers and longtime New Yorkers face deportation, separation from their loved ones, and other harrowing consequences in an outdated and highly complex immigration legal system. As budget negotiations continue, lawmakers must invest $150 million in immigration legal services in addition to passing the Access to Representation Act,” said Shayna Kessler, associate director for advocacy at the Vera Institute of Justice's Advancing Universal Representation initiative.

“Including the Access to Representation Act in this year’s budget is the single most important action New York State can take to tackle this crisis of representation in the immigration process. Although there have been increases in the number of newly arriving immigrants in recent years, this is not a new development, If anything it is part of a larger historical pattern of generations of immigrants calling New York their home. The cycles of rapid response and this crisis of representation we see today only exist because our State has put off building an infrastructure of long-term immigration legal services for far too long. We are forcing immigrant New Yorkers to try to navigate an opaque system designed to make them fail without access to basic legal orientation, much less a representative on their case. At the same time legal service providers, who are unable to meet the crushing needs for their services, cannot expand capacity without more resources that are guaranteed year over year. We thank Assemblymember Catalina Cruz and Senator Brad Hoylman for their continued leadership on this issue and urge the New York State Legislature and Governor to include the ARA in this year’s budget so that New York can continue to be a beacon of hope and solidarity for the rest of the country,” said Camille Mackler, executive director of Immigrant ARC.


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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