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NYC immigrant public-defender system breaks ground

Published:Monday | September 8, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Six-year-old Gabriela Lopez is escorted from an appearance in Immigration Court by an unidentified adult in New York. Judges in New York's Immigration Court have started to issue orders of deportation 'in absentia' for Central Americans minors who crossed the border recently.


When Curtis Edmund first heard that a government official had come by his Bronx home looking for him, he couldn't figure out why. But he agreed to a meeting early this year, and when he arrived, he was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

Edmund, a longtime United States legal resident and native of Trinidad and Tobago, now faced deporta-tion because of two misdemeanour theft convic-tions from the mid-2000s that had put him on immigration officials' radar.

"I have no representation. I don't know nothing about immigration or immigration court. I wasn't expecting this," recounted Edmund, 47, a green-card holder since 1994.

He couldn't afford an attorney. But help came from a pilot programme offering free legal representation for poor immigrant New Yorkers facing deportation at the federal immigration court at Varick Street in Manhattan. Now, Edmund has been released on bail and is fighting removal.

The New York City Council approved US$4.9 million to fully fund the programme for the fiscal year that started July 1. The programme, covering all eligible low-income immigrant-city residents, is the first of its kind in the nation. Proponents say it has helped highlight a serious issue about the lack of legal representation in the immigration system and is helping address the backlogs and delays that result when immigrants without attorneys try to make their way through the system.

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project "brought more recognition to this idea that is really offensive for non-citizens, especially detained non-citizens, who are facing something as drastic as deportation to have to defend themselves in one of the most complicated areas of law without an attorney," said Raha Jorjani, who was hired in January by Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Wood's office in California to do similar work.