Innovative Leadership in Public Funding for Immigration Representation

Last summer a surge of children and families from Central America crossed the U.S. southern border, fleeing persecution and violence. By some accounts, arrivals totaled at more than 100,000. Many had valid asylum claims, but struggled to find legal representation. This flood of cases was pushed through the immigration court system—and at a rapid pace initially—while tens of thousands of these cases went unrepresented. Many wound up with removal orders.

Despite the best efforts of nonprofit legal service providers, law firms, and volunteer lawyers who all stepped up to offer pro bono representation, many Central American children and families seeking asylum still struggle to obtain legal representation.

Yet in places like New York City and California, the border surge provided a catalyst to direct some much-needed public funding toward legal representation for indigent immigrant children. Ground-breaking examples of public investment in legal representation emerged.

In New York a public-private partnership between the city council, the Robin Hood Foundation, and the New York Community Trust invested $1.9 million into the Unaccompanied Minors Initiative, which funds legal and social services for immigrant children in the five boroughs. Through the initiative, local non-profit agencies trained 5,000 lawyers and volunteers, who in turn screened over 1,600 immigrant children for legal relief and took on 648 cases.

“No child should have to navigate the court system alone—and this initiative ensures that all unaccompanied minors will continue to have access to the legal help and guidance they need,” stated Council Member Rafael L. Espinal, Jr. in a recent press release celebrating the one-year anniversary of this initiative.

The city’s efforts stop short of providing representation to all immigrant populations, including children appearing in New York City Immigration Court but who reside in upstate New York or on Long Island. Nonetheless, the program created a smart and innovative model worth replicating in other cities or states.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law last September providing three million dollars for legal representation for unaccompanied immigrant children. Similar to the NYC initiative, funds were distributed to nonprofit agencies in key locations that then provided direct representation and mentored pro bono lawyers.

California and New York City stand out as innovative municipal backers of legal representation. These programs have the potential for high impact if replicated elsewhere. Unfortunately, other cities and states have not yet followed suit, despite the fact that legal representation is one of the most important factors impacting the outcome of an immigrant’s case. Recent data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse shows that children with lawyers are allowed to remain in the United States 73% of the time. In contrast, children who do not have an attorney are allowed to remain in the United States only 15% of the time. If more cities funded legal representation, it could have a significant impact on case outcomes.

The U.S. immigration system is costly, cumbersome, and inefficient. Several reports and scholars note that setting aside federal funding for representation would not only enhance due process, but also make the system run more efficiently. A recent National Economic Research Associates (NERA) study reports that the cost of publicly funded representation would pay for itself through the cost savings the federal government would see in transportation, detention and foster care.

In the meantime, New York City and California are leading the way, helping to address at least some of the representation gap. The case numbers from these jurisdictions in the last year show that municipal funding not only results in more lawyers for children, but also triggers a force-multiplier effect: new volunteers enter the fold, which in turn leads to even more lawyers becoming aware of the need and volunteering. Cities like Houston, New Orleans, Miami, Atlanta, and others should follow this example by creating their own representation initiatives.


Published on August 10, 2015


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