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

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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,” 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.

“Let's invest in justice, not just for some, but for all. Investing $150 million in immigration legal services in FY25 and passing the Access to Representation Act (S999/A170) isn't just a fiscal decision; it's a moral imperative. Every individual, whether newly arrived or long-time resident, deserves equitable access to legal representation regardless of their financial status,” said Senator Robert Jackson, District 31. By investing in universal representation, we not only uphold our values but also ensure long-term stability, promote racial equity, and bolster our economy. It's not just about legal aid; it's about building a stronger, safer, and more equitable state for everyone."

“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, 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, 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, Immigrant ARC.