This is a post in our blog series highlighting the different programs at the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC). Check back every week to learn more about the programs that help advocate for New York’s immigrant communities!
The Legal Initiatives Program at the NYIC helps ensure that immigrant New Yorkers have access to quality legal services by training legal service providers, making sure that they have the support and resources they need to provide the best services they can, and connecting these providers with immigrant communities. The program also leads campaigns to fight immigration services fraud, create materials to inform people of their legal rights, and ensures that immigrants get help beyond legal services.
I sat down with Camille Mackler, Director of Legal Initiatives, and Hallam Tuck, Training and Legal Initiatives Associate, to learn more about this program.
Camille (left) and Hallam(right) at the NYIC Office
What is the focus and goal of your program?
We support legal service providers in New York State to ensure that they are able to provide the best form of legal representation to immigrant communities - and to make sure that communities are connected to legitimate service providers.
What are some projects that this program is leading or has led?
We usually lead campaigns to increase funding and resources for legal service providers on the City and State levels. We had a very successful anti-fraud campaign which helped pass a bill that cut down on immigration services fraud in the State. We have also started a legal services providers advocacy collaborative, to help them advocate with one unified voice.
Through the Immigrant Concerns Training Institute, we provide legal training to attorneys and staff of nonprofit agencies. We will be holding our next 40 hour training for Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) Recognition and Accreditation during the week of the 19th of September and have two more planned for upstate later in the year.
We connect people with the legal services they need to help them obtain immigration status in the United States or apply for US citizenship. We try to take a broad view of what services immigration legal clients will need - so we also make connections to other services. For example, someone who applies for US Citizenship may need legal help to sponsor family members for greencards, or may want information on financial products or job opportunities available to US Citizens.
One of our biggest roles is to serve as a liaison to all federal immigration agencies - so if someone has a problem, such as a case that has been mishandled or is not moving forward, we serve as the connection between the community, legal service providers, and government agencies.
We also are involved in advocacy to make the immigration legal system accessible to as many people as possible. For example, we were part of a campaign to make citizenship more affordable. We also try to get people excited about US citizenship so they are encouraged to apply, and motivate US Citizens, to be civically engaged.
As part of our naturalization work, we are partnering with the New York State Office for New Americans, CUNY Citizenship Now! and the American Immigration Lawyers Association to hold a citizenship application assistance event on September 17th - Citizenship Day - to celebrate citizenship.
We were heavily involved in pushing for immigration reform. Even though the Supreme Court did not pass extended DACA and DAPA, we will keep supporting the push for reform and will work to implement administrative relief if and when the injunction is lifted.
What are some success and challenges you’ve had so far in this program?
A success has been the development of the Protecting Immigrant New Yorkers (PINY) Task Force, which was created as a result of our campaign against fraud. This task force brings together law enforcement agencies and government agencies from the Federal, State and City levels, community groups, and bar associations to collectively tackle immigration services fraud. We have been asked to replicate this program nationally and a lot of people want to know how this can be expanded in all states.
One challenge is that it is difficult to push for funding for lawyers. Generally, getting funding and support for legal services for immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, has been difficult because of the political implications of supporting undocumented immigrants. Also, legal service providers are not used to advocating as a collective voice. The willingness and desire is there, but we are still trying to make them comfortable about the idea of working together.
Why is it important to train legal service providers who work with immigrant communities?
It is difficult to function in the United States without the ability to stay in the United States legally, to obtain work authorization, or without knowledge of your legal rights if you are a victim of crime, violence or persecution. The legal system is incredibly complex and most lawyers do not want to deal with immigration law - lawyers who want to focus on immigration end up doing business immigration and won’t touch deportation cases. We want to make sure immigrants have housing, can go to school and have a job, but if they are not going to be able to stay in the United States and work legally then that is not going to be helpful to them. Because of that immense need, the confusion and fear that our immigration laws create, and the lack of well informed immigration lawyers, people have started scamming immigrants which has caused even more problems for immigrant communities.
It is therefore important to train people for BIA Recognition and Accreditation. These are non lawyers who are permitted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to represent immigrants in legal proceedings. We make them accessible within the immigrant community to ensure that immigrants are not defrauded and that they have access to people who are well informed of the changes that often occur in immigration law. These trainings also keep legal service providers up to date so that they can build capacity at their own organizations.
How does this program help immigrant communities?
Through our advocacy, we have worked to expand funding for immigration legal services in New York City and State. Through our coordination work, training program, and anti-fraud efforts, we have expanded the capacity and know-how of service providers, and prevented community members from becoming the victim of scammers.