Limiting SNAP Benefits Would Be Cruel and Unjust

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In April NYLAG, along with other food security advocates nationwide, submitted comments to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) about whether it should reconsider certain rules that govern the participation of childless adults in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Under federal law, SNAP imposes a three-month time limit on most childless unemployed and underemployed adults unless they are working 20 hours a week. The push to further restrict benefits for this population comes from the idea that benefits programs need to encourage people to work, especially if they are childless adults aged 18-49 without disabilities.

It’s not surprising there’s a huge stigma attached to people receiving any type of government benefits. The stereotype that benefit recipients are happy to be on benefits their entire lives and don’t want to work to support themselves is something I’ve had to fight since becoming a benefits advocate and attorney. I see it in the community, on TV, and even from my own clients who feel the need to justify their situation. Like many others, childless adults often turn to SNAP for assistance when they are no longer able to make ends meets, especially as jobs are lost, hours are cut, or wages hover at the federal minimum. As a result of this rule, unemployed or underemployed individuals are cut off from food assistance, causing hardship and increasing food insecurity. The groups impacted by this rule are extremely poor and often not eligible for other help while unemployed.

Originally, this harsh rule was enacted in 1996 when the Clinton administration introduced major reforms to the nation’s welfare system. Since then, the USDA has given states flexibility in the regulations that govern the time limit. Today, states have the option to request a waiver of the time limit if they can document that a given geographic area has an insufficient number of jobs (or has an unemployment rate over 10 percent).

The current process is very straightforward: states must provide adequate documentation showing that the area’s unemployment rate would qualify it for a waiver. Once that is done, USDA cannot arbitrarily deny the waiver request.

The proposed rule changes appear to completely disregard the barriers to employment faced by this population. Many people subject to the time limit struggle to find employment even in normal economic times. They tend to have limited education and also face barriers to work such as a criminal justice history or racial discrimination.

It is also important to remember that there is no actual evidence that SNAP receipt discourages unemployed adults without children from seeking employment. For the population of individuals who aren’t working at least 20 hours a week, SNAP provides less than $5 a day in food benefits.  It is hard to imagine these individuals would forgo earnings to maintain eligibility for SNAP.

For the last 20 years states have been free to use their waivers for SNAP’s three-month time limit to protect vulnerable citizens, to ease the burden of administering this complicated rule, and to craft meaningful work requirements that are fair and reasonable. Any change that would restrict, impede, or add uncertainty to New York’s current ability to waive areas with elevated unemployment would be dangerous and unfair to people facing barriers to employment that they cannot control.

 

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Freelance Isn’t Free

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Almost a year ago, Local Law 140 of 2016, the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, took effect in New York City. The law establishes and enhances protections for freelance workers—individuals hired or retained as an independent contractor by a hiring party—regardless of immigration status. The law is intended to help solve an all too common problem faced by freelancers: non-payment or late payment for their work. Under the law, freelancers have a right to a written contract, timely and full payment for services rendered, and freedom from retaliation for exercising their rights. The law establishes penalties for violations of these rights, as well as statutory damages, double damages, injunctive relief, and attorneys’ fees. Individual causes of action are adjudicated in state court.

The law also requires the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Labor Policy & Standards (OLPS) to provide a court navigation program. Court navigators field inquiries from freelancers about their rights under the law and provide them with resources so that freelancers can resolve their claims on their own. The law is meant to alleviate some of the intimidation that most people, even those who are represented by a lawyer, feel when confronted with the prospect of proceeding to court.

The civil justice system might be the best way for freelancers to vindicate their rights against an unscrupulous hiring party. If a freelancer files a lawsuit against a hiring party, the hiring party has to respond or the freelancer could win the case on default. Once in court the freelancer has the chance to settle their claims or pursue their case to final judgment.

Freelancers may assume that pursuing a case in court is not worth it because of the cost of paying an attorney that could be more than the money that is owed from the hiring party. In fact, however, the Freelance Isn’t Free laws contain “fee-shifting” provisions requiring the court to award attorneys’ fees in addition to enhanced damages if a freelancer successfully proves their claims. This means that many attorneys might be willing to take cases at lower rates or lower retainer fees because if the freelancer wins, the hiring party has to pay the freelancer’s attorney.

Even if a freelancer does not find an attorney to take their case they can still file a lawsuit against the hiring party. No one needs an attorney to file a lawsuit and many people proceed in court as unrepresented litigants. And the process of filing a lawsuit on without an attorney is more straightforward than one might expect. Most individuals in New York City who have cases claiming damages for money that equal $25,000 or less can file their case in one of the New York City Civil Courts. The NYC Civil Courts are essentially the “people’s court” (without the TV drama) where ordinary people file and adjudicate their claims. There is a civil court in every borough of the city; it is accessible, and court cases progress on a relatively expedited scheduled. This means that a case should not drag on for years and a decision should be rendered within a few court appearances.

Freelancers who want to learn more about their rights, how to vindicate those rights if they are violated, and the resources available to find legal help go to the Freelance Isn’t Free Event on Wednesday, April 25, 2018, from 6 – 8 p.m. The event is FREE. Freelancers will learn about the Freelance Isn’t Free Act from New York City Department of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Labor Policy & Standards — the agency that administers the Freelancer Isn’t Free Act – and from experienced civil court practitioners about the court process and the resources available to help find an attorney to take their case.

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Self-Care in the Workplace: If you don’t make time to stay healthy, you better leave time to be sick.

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For native New Yorkers like me, complaining is second nature and in this city there is no shortage of stressors to wind us up. Flu season, a spring with a winter-identity crisis, bills at NYC rates, the subway. Add to these, more personal stressors like kids, health, relationships and everything happening on twitter. Public interest lawyers face an additional set of stressors. We serve marginalized, victimized, disenfranchised, traumatized communities.

I run free legal clinics in hospitals as part of a medical-legal partnership that addresses the pressing legal needs that endanger the health of low-income patients. My clients are the victims of trafficking and domestic violence. They are on dialysis four days a week yet ineligible for a transplant, or grappling with a terminal diagnosis. Their health challenges are complicated by the threat of eviction, lack of health insurance or the struggle to navigate myriad complex and bureaucratic social services. As their attorney I am vulnerable to vicarious trauma because it is often difficult to separate myself from the people I serve.

This past year and a half, work-place stressors have been compounded by policies and legislation that attack and threaten these populations most at-risk.  Our clients are under attack: whether it relates to DACA, the Affordable Care Act, sanctuary cities, consumer protection, or trans members of the military, we are scrambling to adjust our advocacy strategies as we wait for the next blow to hit. We are exhausted, drained, stretched-thin, angry, frustrated, more often the bearer of bad news, on the defensive, and at times powerless. It’s no surprise that under these conditions self-care has become a buzz word. And for public interest lawyers, self-care is like drinking water: we know we’re supposed to do it but even with the reminder we never drink enough.  Self-care has always been a necessary survival skill in this line of work. But the attacks and uncertainty under the current administration have resulted in a more urgent need to prioritize self-care. Our well-being – and that of our clients – depends on it.

That context and sense of urgency is what has spurred me to drive self-care initiatives for my organization of 300 employees. And this past Saturday, I had the distinguished opportunity to share my insight during a panel discussion hosted by the National Association of Women Judges, an organization dedicated to achieving fairness and equality in our judicial system.  In addition to members of the judiciary, the event brought together professionals from the private bar, legal services organizations, academia, and business to grapple with pressing social justice issues, including bail reform, the opioid crisis, revenge pornography, cybersecurity and more..

With topics like these on the agenda it was little wonder that when we got to my panel, “Self-Care is an Essential Part of Your Professional Success”, ears perked up.

My fellow panelists included clinical psychologists, a pastor and the co-chair of the American Bar Association’s commission on lawyer assistance programs and judicial assistance initiative. We were all there to talk about maintaining mental well-being while living in particularly stressful times, doing particularly stressful work.

Here were some of the takeaways:

  • Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness.

Often there is shame and a sense of failure when we fall behind in our work or struggle to fulfill our responsibilities. Rather than allowing the fear of reproach to heighten our stress, asking for help can get us back on steady footing and a place of calm. Furthermore, by sharing our own difficulties we are signaling to our colleagues that it is okay to need help and to seek it out. This helps to foster a supportive and open work environment.

 

  • Create a culture of self-care in your workplace

One of the star sheet cakes from NYLAG’s self care Sheet Cake Party

An effective culture of self-care is created when mental health and wellness is an articulated value of the organization and when staff is encouraged to actively participate and contribute to self-care initiatives.  At our organization, we formed a Post-Election Working Group as a rapid-response to policies which affect our clients, and as a self-care initiative to combat work-related fatigue and burnout. Some of our events have included, diversity potlucks, book club, yoga, phone banking, art therapy, and my personal favorite, a “sheet cake party” inspired by a Tina Fey sketch on Saturday Night Live.

 

  • Exercise self-care when times are easy.

Much of the panel was spent identifying symptoms and addressing strategies to assist individuals in moments of crisis. But as was noted, it is important to practice self-care when things are not so bad. Prioritizing self-care and making time for metal wellness lowers the risk of crisis and also makes us better prepared to cope during challenging times.

 

  • Know what resources are available to you when quick fixes and simple solutions no longer apply.

The New York City Bar Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) is a free, confidential service, available to attorneys, judges, law students and their family members, in New York City, who are struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, depression, anxiety, stress, as well as other addictions and mental health issues. LAP’s confidential hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 212-302-5787

Self-care can help to lower anxiety, prevent burn-out, and strengthen our capacity to advocate for clients.  Self-care can also be used as a community-building tool for organizations, leading to higher staff-morale and retention. For me, it can mean going to a rally to keep ICE out of courthouses or reading daily affirmations from Lin-Manuel Miranda.

If you don’t make time to stay healthy, you better leave time to be sick. So take care – and drink more water.

 

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Marching in Fear and Hope

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Saturday’s March for Our Lives was organized by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and was a collective cry for common sense gun legislation. I am the mother of two children; I marched because I fear for their lives. I fear that they will be exposed to unthinkable trauma. I fear that my children could grow up with a parent taken from them by a bullet. I know the possibility is remote. But I marched on Saturday because the fear is real. The gun safety drills in my daughter’s kindergarten class are real — and mandatory.

I also marched because I fear for my clients. As a public interest lawyer I know gun violence is an intersectional issue that disproportionately affects the most marginalized and victimized among us. Looking at the statistics I recognize the faces of our vulnerable clients.

Nearly two-thirds of firearm deaths in the U.S. are caused by suicide. Many of our clients suffer from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression, or PTSD – a pervasive problem for the veterans we work with. Some of them could be at heightened risk of harming themselves if they are able to access a gun.

In an average month, 50 women are shot to death by intimate partners in the U.S.  When a gun is present in a situation of domestic violence, the risk that a woman will be killed increases fivefold. An analysis of FBI data on mass shootings found that in more than half the cases a spouse, former spouse or other family member was among the victims and 16 percent of the attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence.

For two years in a row that same FBI report showed an overall increase in hate crimes, including a rise in bias-motivated violence against transgender individuals, most of whom were fatally shot. In many instances, the violence is fueled by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, racism, and easy access to guns.

The poverty rate among African Americans is more than twice that of whites, and while African Americans make up 14 percent of the US population they account for over 50 percent of the victims of gun homicide. Even those who survive pay a price: gun violence shapes the lives of the millions of people -often children – who witness it, know someone who was shot, or live in fear of the next shooting.

On Saturday I marched because these statistics are not just tragic. They are racist, sexist, homophobic, and preventable. I marched for my family and for my clients.

On Saturday I felt our power. I watched teenagers register to vote for the November elections. Triumph! Heard the tiny voices of young children lead the swelling crowds around them in chants. Heart-wrenching. Sang for justice and change with the NYC March choir. Poetic. Joined thousands in expressing outrage at the system’s failures. Therapeutic.

I let the wave of hope and anger and fear and hope and hope and hope carry me down Central Park West – as a mother and a lawyer.

 

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Technical Error Leaves NY Seniors Out in the Cold

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NYLAG joins with other advocates for New York State seniors in supporting a bill to extend consumer protections to senior homeowners at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure of a reverse mortgage loan. The bill, A.9592/S.1992-A, corrects a technical error in a 2017 law that mistakenly excluded reverse mortgage loans holders, most of whom are senior citizens.

Reverse mortgage loans can be a useful tool for seniors because they allow homeowners aged 62 and older to tap into their home equity to supplement their income.  Monthly payments are not made; the entire balance including principal and interest that accrues is due when the borrower moves or upon death.  The borrower remains responsible for payment of taxes and insurance.  Because these loans are typically federally insured and can be lucrative for lenders and brokers to make, deceptive practices proliferate in both the making and the servicing of reverse mortgages.

Advocates have seen a dramatic increase in the number of foreclosures brought against senior citizens with reverse mortgages in the past few years.  Unfortunately, consumer protections enacted by New York State in 2009 – 2010 for homeowners with “home loans” facing default and foreclosure, excluded reverse mortgages from the definition of “home loan” (defined in Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law section 1304).  Thus, senior citizens facing foreclosure on a reverse mortgage do not have the same level of consumer protections as other borrowers.  The protections include a 90 pre-foreclosure filing notice which directs distressed homeowners to free foreclosure prevention services and a mandatory settlement conference intended to bring the parties together in a court-supervised meeting to see if the foreclosure can be avoided by workout or settlement.

Legislation enacted in last year’s budget intended to rectify the exclusion of reverse mortgages from the “home loan” definition contained in RPAPL section 1304.  Because of a drafting error, however, the amendments to the “home loan” definition were made to the version of RPAPL 1304 which goes back into effect in 2020, but not to the version that is presently in effect until 2020.  While Governor Cuomo and the Legislature’s intent in including these amendments in the budget legislation was clearly to provide these protections to senior citizens faced with the loss of their homes now—not three years in the future—the error in the codification of the amendments has caused confusion and some lenders refuse to apply these consumer protections to reverse mortgage cases.

Expanding the definition of “home loans” to cover reverse mortgage affords senior citizens facing foreclosure with the same consumer protections as all residential home loan borrowers.  These basic protections have prevented thousands of foreclosures across New York State; providing these basic consumer protections to vulnerable seniors with reverse mortgages will ensure that seniors at risk of foreclosure are given the same opportunities to save their homes from foreclosures that conventional mortgage holders have been given.

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The Consequences of DACA Repeal, Especially for Women

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On September 5, 2017, the Trump administration announced plans to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, implemented via executive order by President Obama in 2012. As of early February 2018, the fate of DACA remains up in the air, with both Democrats and Republicans pledging to continue working toward new legislation to resolve the issue.

The main objective of the DACA program is to shield Dreamers – undocumented immigrants who came into the United States as children – from deportation, while giving them the ability to participate fully in society through educational and employment opportunities. According to USCIS, as of September 2017, there are 689,800 DACA recipients in the US. A recent poll conducted by CBS news suggests that about 9 in 10 people, or 87 percent of the US population, support the DACA program and believe that Dreamers should be permitted to stay in the US.

The move toward repeal has led immigration advocacy organizations and other progressive groups to stand up in favor of the DACA program and demand that Congress ensure that Dreamers are protected. Public officials, including mayors, state representatives, and judges, as well as civic and faith leaders have also declared their support for the DACA program. In the private sector, business leaders, including the CEOs of Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter co-signed an open letter in support of DACA and calling on Congress to enact legislation that would provide Dreamers a permanent status to remain in the US legally.

The potential consequences of DACA repeal are significant, as most recipients are not eligible for immigration relief if their status under DACA expires. If Congress is unable to reach a permanent solution, DACA recipients will continue to live in uncertainty. For women, the ramifications could be even more severe. Below, attorney Irina Matiychenko, Director of the Immigration Protection Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group, helps explain some of the challenges that women Dreamers could face.

1. Loss of employment

As recipients of DACA, undocumented immigrants were granted authorization to legally work in the US. This encouraged many Dreamers to pursue various educational and training opportunities and many are employed throughout all industries and at all levels. A survey conducted by the American Center for Progress and the National Immigration Law Center shows that DACA recipients received “higher paying jobs” after enrolling in the DACA program. The survey also revealed that many DACA recipients opened their own businesses, resulting in more jobs and tax revenue for the US economy.

NYLAG Immigration Attorneys at DACA protest in New York City

NYLAG Immigration Attorneys at DACA protest in NYC

Repeal of DACA would strip employment authorization from recipients, and according to Matiychenko, entrepreneurs and business owners would be in danger of having their “businesses taken away from them and being left with nothing.” The ramifications of this are significant. According to a 2017 survey by the Center for American Progress, five percent of DACA recipients have started their own businesses, while eight percent of recipients ages 25 and older have become entrepreneurs — which means that DACA recipients “are outpacing the general population in terms of business creation.”

For immigrant women in New York City, starting a business is already very difficult, and a DACA repeal would amount to yet another roadblock to entrepreneurship. According to a 2015 report by Women Entrepreneurs New York City (WE NYC), NYC’s immigrant women find it significantly more difficult to find customers and hire people for their businesses, compared with women overall. Additionally, immigrant women “are the most willing to take risks” in starting businesses, an asset to the city’s economic growth that could be dimmed with the repeal of DACA.

Given DACA recipients’ proclivity toward entrepreneurship, they could go on to start successful businesses, boosting the economy in the process, if they were offered a path to citizenship. According to a 2017 article by Rodrigo Camarena, Strategy Director at Purpose PBC, and former Executive Director of Business Programs at the New York City Department of Small Business Services, immigrants are “nearly twice as likely as nonimmigrants to start businesses nationwide”, and while immigrants make up just over a third of the NYC population (37 percent), they own nearly half (47 percent) of the city’s small businesses.

But the economic effects of DACA extend far beyond NYC: The Center for American Progress asserts that approximately $460 billion could be lost in the next decade and about 685,000 people could lose their jobs if the DACA program is rescinded. And ultimately, it is crucial that young immigrant women are encouraged and supported in the quest to attain education and economic stability. According the World Bank, when girls and young women face obstacles in receiving an education, they are more likely to marry at a younger age, “suffer domestic violence, live in poverty, and lack a say over household spending or their own health care”.

2. Loss of medical coverage

Losing the ability to work also means losing access to employer-sponsored medical plans, says Matiychenko. For DACA recipients, who are “barred from Medicaid and CHIP, and from buying insurance on the Obamacare exchanges” (although not in New York State, which considers recipients permanent residents), receiving health insurance through employers is crucial. For women recipients in particular, losing health insurance could be devastating. Matiychenko worries that thousands of women would be forced to forego essential reproductive health screenings and pre- and postnatal care, and be less likely to utilize low-cost or free clinics for fear of drawing attention to their immigration status.

An absence of medical coverage, combined with the fear of deportation often results in pregnant undocumented immigrant women not receiving screenings for gestational diabetes and other conditions that harm themselves and the fetus. According to Planned Parenthood, up to 60 percent of undocumented immigrant women of reproductive age are lacking medical coverage. These women are often less likely to utilize essential preventative care such as Pap tests, STD screenings, and birth control. The National Women’s Law Center found that in 2017, “only about half of immigrant women at risk for unplanned pregnancy obtained contraceptive care” versus “two-thirds of US-born women”.

3. Psychological and emotional harm

NYLAG Staff at DACA Rally in New York City September, 2017

According to Matiychenko, undocumented immigrant women embraced the DACA program because “they believed and trusted the government” and were given “hope” for a better future for themselves and their families. Now, the government has backtracked on its promises, instilling not only a sense of betrayal, but also fear of deportation. For most Dreamers, the US is the only home they have known, and the prospect of being deported to an unfamiliar country in which they have no ties is understandably terrifying. Furthermore, Dreamers may be forced to return to countries that lack opportunities and are downright unsafe for women.

Matiychenko further stressed that a DACA repeal would put mothers in a particularly difficult position, since many women recipients of DACA have children who are US citizens. A 2017 study led by University of California at San Diego political scientist Tom K. Wong found that one in four Dreamers has a US-born child, which leaves an estimated 200,000 children in the US with a DACA-recipient parent.

And many of those parents may be single mothers. According to the Migration Policy Institute, while men make up only 53 percent of the US’s overall unauthorized population, they comprised 91 percent of the 3.7 million deportations carried out by the Department of Homeland Security between 2003-2013. Furthermore, according to “Everyday Illegal: When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families”, published in 2015 by Joanna Dreby and discussed by the American Psychological Association, “Since the overwhelming majority of deportees are men, remaining women often abruptly become single mothers in charge of all financial, household and childcare responsibilities.”

While the research above is not specific to DACA recipients, there is growing concern for Dreamers who are single mothers. As The New Yorker reported in July 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been targeting “a considerable number of women who have no criminal records and who are either the primary caretakers of young children, or the primary family breadwinners, or both.” These women could face impossible choices if they are deported; their children could end up in the foster care system if left behind in the US, or face safety concerns and limited opportunities for education and employment in a new country if they leave.

4. Vulnerability to abuse and exploitation

The immigrant rights organization We Belong Together has reported that immigrant women are three to six times likelier than US-born women to experience domestic abuse, often due to their fear of deportation and limited financial resources. Abusers will often use a woman’s immigration status against her to maintain control and make it more difficult for her to leave the abusive marriage or relationship. According to Matiychenko, the current administration’s rhetoric and policy stances regarding immigration further discourage women from reporting domestic violence, sexual assault, and other crimes due to fear of ICE detention and/or deportation. Fear of deportation could also lead to an uptick in fraudulent marriages by women hoping to avoid family separation. Women may also put up with various forms of harassment and abuse in the workplace and academia for fear of being deported.

When asked whether repeal of DACA would further contribute to women being fearful to seek assistance from law enforcement, the justice system, and even medical personnel, Matiychenko exclaimed, “Of course, who would trust this government? Especially when the government states that everyone is deportable.”

*****

DACA repeal would be devastating for all recipients, but the reality of repeal and deportation could be especially difficult for women. Matiychenko asserted that it is “heartless” for the current administration to play with the lives of DACA recipients as a political ploy to get Democrats to cooperate with their agenda. She further noted that DACA recipients are “our children” and must be protected and given legal status.

In concluding our conversation, Matiychenko shared that as a refugee from the Soviet Union, she appreciates the US constitution and everything that the US stands for. Thus, she urged that DACA recipients and their supporters must not lose hope and should continue to actively advocate against rescission. In fact, the New York Legal Assistance Group, along with many other legal service organizations, recently joined an amicus brief against rescission of DACA.

Also worth noting, is that even if DACA is ultimately kept in place, it is not perfect, as a group of Dreamers told the Columbia Journalism Reviewin December 2017: “the program grants two years of deportation relief that can be revoked. At no point did the program put us on a path to citizenship.”

Resources

If you have questions about your DACA status, or want to join the movement in support of DACA and a path toward citizenship, see the resources below.

  • The New York Legal Assistance Group has set up a DACA Assistance Line for anyone with questions or concerns about their DACA status.
  • There are also opportunities to get involved with the New York Legal Assistance Group as a volunteer.
Young person of color dressed in all white holds a picket sign that reads "United we stand too" with small american flags at the top

 Originally publish on New Women New Yorkers’ blog

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Legal Help for Female Veterans

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Samantha Kubek has established the nation’s first legal clinics for women veterans at the Bronx and Manhattan VA hospitals which provide a safe space in which clients can receive trauma-informed legal assistance. She recently spoke about her work after  screenings of the documentary Served Like A Girl.

As an Equal Justice Works fellow, I represent women veterans through free legal clinics at VA hospitals in New York City. The majority of my clients are survivors of military sexual assault or rape. I’ve seen the terrible suffering of far too many and the failure of the military to adequately punish attackers and help survivors deal with their trauma. When I speak about my work, I often discover the public is largely unaware of what goes on behind the scenes for our dedicated military personnel. The Department of Defense estimates that about 8,600 women and 6,300 men were sexually assaulted in our armed forces in 2016. In total, nearly 500,000 veterans have survived military sexual trauma. There are roughly 55,000 homeless women veterans across the United States, and women veterans are often homeless with children.  On a given night in 2014, roughly 4,500 women veterans were homeless. Rates of suicide by women veterans are on the rise, with women veterans committing suicide at nearly six times the rate of non-veteran women. Twenty veterans (men and women) commit suicide a day. That’s nearly one every hour.

I represent these women on their VA benefits cases, helping them to obtain monthly compensation for the lasting trauma they still bear. I also assist with housing and family law matters, as women veterans are the fastest growing homeless veteran population, and experience domestic violence at disproportionately high rates. Women veterans report feeling “invisible”, and my clinics were created with the goal of assisting these veterans as well as raising awareness of the struggles of this population.

Several bills are before Congress that could greatly help this population. Please call your Congresspersons and tell them to pass the:

  • Military Justice Improvement Act: moves the decision-making authority on whether to prosecute sexual assault and other serious crimes to independent, professional military prosecutors

  • Deborah Sampson Act: ensures supportive services for women veterans. A key component of this act requires the government to establish a partnership with at least one nongovernmental organization to provide legal services to women veterans.

  • Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2017: enables the VA to provide funding for legal services for homeless veterans and those at risk of homelessness.

There are few organizations dedicated to helping women veterans, but two were highlighted in our discussion:

  • LegalHealth, a division of the New York Legal Assistance Group provides free legal services to women veterans in matters including VA and social security benefits, family law, housing, advance planning, discharge upgrades, and federal student loan discharges.

  • Final Salute, Inc. seeks to provide homeless women Veterans with safe and suitable housing and aids in the prevention of homelessness for at-risk women Veterans.

     

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America’s Children

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The long awaited debate in Congress on the fate of thousands of DACA Dreamers (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is poised to take place over the next several weeks. As they consider whether to grant these young people the right to remain in the only home they have ever known, lawmakers would do well to keep in mind that the nation – indeed the world – is watching. DACA Dreamers are citizens in all respects, but for their immigration status. We raised them, imbued them with our values and made them part of our culture and our very future. Most Americans agree that their unique situation calls for a compassionate and forward-looking solution.

French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said, “You become responsible, forever, for whom you have tamed.” Five years ago, President Obama acknowledged our responsibility to the nation’s Dreamers by issuing an Executive Order to offer a modest piece of the American Dream to children who were brought to this country while very young, were raised here, and long ago lost whatever ties they may have had to the countries of their parents’ origin. At the same time, we took a pragmatic approach. DACA was not a path to citizenship, it was temporary, and applicants had to prove that they deserved the opportunity. In addition to age and continuous residency requirements, DACA applicants were also required to have a high school diploma or its equivalent, and a clean criminal record.

The vast majority of those who applied for DACA benefits were granted temporary status. They have become professionals, they have served in the U.S. military, they have been integrated into American society, and they have contributed to our prosperity.

DACA protest at Columbus Circle.
Credit: Rhododendrites Photography

President Trump has reassured us that he has a great heart. Yet action has not followed those words. In fact, last week the heads of Homeland Security under three previous Administrations implored Congress to act within the next few weeks due to the many complexities involved in finalizing any DACA legislation. If not, it will be too late. The lives of 800,000 DACA recipients and the millions of family members who depend upon them will be thrown into chaos and uncertainty. The many thousands of companies that employ Dreamers will be severely negatively impacted. The consequences for our nation will be devastating — to our economy, to public safety, to the character of our communities, and to our moral stature around the world.

The United States has been skirting the issue of its undocumented children long enough. Any attempt to deport almost a million law abiding, productive, talented, and accomplished people who once were granted hope to live up to their dreams will not go unchallenged. My colleagues and I will do everything legally possible to help our Dreamers. We are fortunate to live in a country that is governed by the rule of law. DACA recipients cannot be deported without having their day in immigration court and we will do everything in our power to make sure that all 800,000 of them are properly represented.

We will fight back. It is our moral and legal obligation to do so. These are not somebody else’s children, they are our children. Congress must act today.

Updated January 23, 2018

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Give the Gift of Literary Empathy

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NYLAG-Social-Justice-Holiday-Reading-Guide

By Elizabeth Gibson, Staff Attorney, Immigrant Protection Unit and Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow

‘Tis the season for dreading what family and friends might say at the holiday dinner table.

When politics differ, and this year there has been a lot of differing, how do you push back and educate without the entire meal exploding? Surely, there is a healthier method than twisting your napkin in knots under the table?

This year, consider a sneak attack in the form of literature. Infiltrate the book shelves of your familial adversaries with holiday gifts that make the recipients think. Distract them with engaging plots while slipping in social justice morals.


It is no accident that the rise of the human rights movement largely coincided with the advent of paperback literature. When print hit the shelves, it was the first time that people could get inside the head of someone from a different background. We become attached to characters and their struggles. We cheer them on and develop empathy.

Now, this can go too far. Often we romanticize poverty and struggle. Think of how overrepresented orphans are in literature and film, from Oliver Twist to half of Disney. Happily-ever-after endings can make everything look easy and trivialize the trauma, uncertainty, and messy imperfection of humanity.

However, there are plenty of extraordinary books out there that do not pull their punches, books that embrace a realistic narrative and make us think and feel. There is no guarantee that these books will resolve all the holiday tensions in your household – good luck with that – but maybe when the dishes are washed and the decorations are back in their boxes, the books that you gifted will be quietly changing hearts and minds. Tactical book gifting is not foolproof, but it might be a productive alternative to yelling at your friend’s uncle over a plate of cookies.

To get you started, here is a reading list from the book club at the New York Legal Assistance Group. This year’s list focuses on immigration in light of how divisive this topic was in 2017.

Hopefully, these books challenge you and your loved ones to view the world through different eyes this holiday season.

Social Justice Holiday Reading Gift Guide:
Understanding Immigration

1. In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, by Diane Guerrero (Non-Fiction)

 

In the immigration debate, we too seldom hear the voices of those most directly affected, immigrants and their families. In this book, actress Diane Guerrero, best known for her roles in Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, tells her own story. Her autobiography is full of humor and showbiz drama. However, this also is her account of what it feels like as a fourteen-year-old child to get home from school and find an empty house. After both her parents were deported, Guerrero, a native-born U.S. citizen, stayed behind and tried to make the most of her parents’ sacrifices.

 

2. Americanah by Chimamanda, by Ngozi Adichie (Fiction)

 

What kind of book list would this be without literary darling Americanah? Beyond the critical acclaim, Americanah challenges you to face race, class, gender, nationality, and every aspect of identity while weaving a story about two immigrants. One character has academic and career success in the United States, but she is unsure whether she is happy in her adopted home. Across the Atlantic, her old boyfriend finds himself coming to terms with a disastrous immigration experience in the United Kingdom.

 

 

3. Outcasts United by Warren, St. John (Non-Fiction)

 

From Mighty Ducks to Angels in the Outfield, Americans love stories about kids and sports. Outcasts United tells the true tale of a Southern town adjusting to the arrival of families from a refugee resettlement program. Although there are at times tension and misunderstanding, this is the inspiring story of children aiming for glory, one that also highlights the importance of community engagement and service.

 

 

4. Brooklyn: A Novel, by Colm Toibin (Fiction)

 

For the relatives who forget that we are all descended from immigrants, Brooklyn travels back to the 1950s, when immigrant families from Ireland and Italy came looking for work (and sometimes fell in love). The protagonist is a reluctant immigrant living out her sister’s dream of working in the United States while struggling to overcome homesickness and find her own dream.

 

 

 

5. Do They Hear You When You Cry, by Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir (Non-Fiction)

Young Fauziya’s story of fleeing a forced marriage and mutilation in Togo seems so much like something that could only happen in a movie that even the immigration judge thought it was impossible. However, as you begin reading about Fauziya’s life, you see how heartbreakingly real her situation is. Then, when she enters the United States and is detained pending an asylum hearing, the tale shifts to a devastating depiction of the daily trauma faced by a teenager trapped in prison. This captivating book follows one of the most famous cases in immigration law while providing a deeply personal look at what it means for someone to flee for her life and fight for a safer future.

 

6. The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, by Patrick Radden (Non-Fiction)

 

Looking to lure your family in with a crime thriller? This non-fiction story reads like a novel with FBI agents, a criminal kingpin, gang hitmen, and 286 desperate immigrants swimming to shore after their boat crashed off the coast of Queens, New York. The Snakehead digs into the Chinese human smuggling industry, capturing the stories of families fleeing poverty and persecution and the problematic immigration system that victimizes them at every turn. Nothing in this book is black and white. It shows immigration law and all its players in their complicated and conflicted world.

 

7. Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazaro (Non-Fiction)

 

Picture yourself as a teenager. Now picture yourself as a teenager watching a body gets mangled as it falls under the wheels of a freight train atop which you are riding in hopes of reuniting with your mother in the United States. Migrants do not call the freight line through Mexico “El Tren de la Muerte” (The Train of Death) for nothing. Enrique’s Journey truly takes you on a journey from Honduras to the United States. Along the way, Sonia Nazaro does a brilliant job describing the risks and motivations that have driven thousands of children to head north alone.

 

8. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, by Anne Fadiman (Non-Fiction)

 

You may have never heard of the Hmong, an indigenous group that fled China en mass in the face of persecution, but Anne Fadiman will quickly get you up to speed with her beautiful retelling of Hmong mythology and history. At the heart of her book lies a cultural clash between well-meaning doctors and the well-meaning family of a child with epilepsy. Mistakes and misunderstanding on both sides abound as a child fights for her life.

 

 

9. John Lennon vs. The U.S.A.: The Inside Story of the Most Bitterly Contested and Influential Deportation Case in United States History, by Leon Wildes (Author), Michael Wildes (Non-Fiction)

 

Immigration regulations often intersect with racial and class discrimination, but the story of John Lennon shows how the immigration system can also be abused as a political tool. Through the eyes of Lennon’s attorney, this book recounts President Richard Nixon’s efforts to deport one of the world’s most celebrated musicians. Fair warning: This one gets into the legal weeds and can be a bit academic, but it is an interesting look inside the life of a famous Beatle.

 

 

10. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, by Margriet Ruurs (Children’s Picture Book)

 

 

Social justice books for children can be tricky to do right, but this picture book introduces children to the difficult topic of a Syrian family having to flee their home. It is beautifully illustrated with pieces by the Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr, who creates images of refugees using small stones.

 

 

Elizabeth Gibson is an immigration attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group in New York City. NYLAG is a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to low-income New Yorkers, including immigrant children fleeing violence, consumers being defrauded, tenants facing eviction, victims of workplace, gender and sexual discrimination, and many more vulnerable people who otherwise are forced to navigate the justice system on their own.

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Students Defrauded by For-Profit School Sue US Department of Education

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Toby Merrill, Director, Harvard Law School Project on Predatory Student LendingTina Carr and Yvette Colon had the same goal. They wanted to build careers in the medical field, make a good living and enjoy a better quality of life. They both knew that the gateway to a brighter future would be to attend a good school that had a track record of placing its students in meaningful jobs after graduation and would give them the opportunity to pursue further education down the road. Sanford-Brown Institute convinced them they had found their dream school, but instead plunged them into a nightmare that isn’t over yet.

Sanford-Brown Institute (SBI) is a for-profit college owned by Career Education Corporation (CEC).  SBI officials engaged in outright deception to induce Tina and Yvette to enroll in its vocational programs. Both students found out too late that the school’s programs lacked necessary accreditation, provided woefully inadequate training, and granted credits that were not accepted by other schools. The school also lied to them about its dismal track record in placing students in medical vocations. In the end, SBI left them with crippling debt and the realization that they had been lied to and manipulated so SBI could profit from the student loans taken out in their names.

In March 2015, Tina and Yvette submitted so-called “defense to repayment” applications to the US Department of Education (Department) and Navient, the company that holds Yvette’s loans. These applications invoked their right, explicitly granted in their student loan contracts, to cancellation of their debt if Sanford-Brown had committed fraud in violation of state laws. Despite their clear legal entitlement to loan cancellation, the Department and Navient have refused to consider their defenses, leaving them to struggle—along with tens of thousands of other borrowers whose defenses the Department has ignored—with burdensome and insurmountable student loan debt.

The Department’s failure to respond to students it is charged with protecting is particularly troubling given that in 2013 the Office of the Attorney General of the State of New York (OAG) found that SBI systematically cheated its students. Although SBI representatives cited job placement statistics to Tina of 80 percent, the OAG found that the actual placement rate was only 26.1%. Further, the OAG demonstrated that CEC-operated schools like SBI committed widespread deception concerning programmatic accreditation, and failed to disclose that graduates generally could not transfer credits to legitimate schools. The OAG concluded that these practices violated New York’s consumer protection statutes.

This month, Tina and Yvette took action. They filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department and Navient, asking the Court to recognize their legal right to have their loans cancelled and citing the Department’s failure to act on their borrower defense applications, as well as the applications of thousands of other former students whose debts the Department has the legal obligation to cancel.

The lawsuit comes just as the Department convenes a second negotiated rulemaking committee in as many years on the subject of borrower defense. But it appears that what is happening this year in Washington is nothing more than regulatory theater. The Department has shown that it has no intention of giving cheated students a fair chance to get out of debts they have no legal obligation to repay. Instead, the Department has undertaken a series of convoluted regulatory maneuvers to avoid cancelling their loans or acknowledging their rights. The Department has repeatedly delayed—and in the current rulemaking seems likely to attempt to rewrite—a rule that would have clarified the process for borrowers to seek cancellation of fraudulent student loan debt.

Tina Carr and Yvette Colon did everything right. They followed the rules and submitted substantiated evidence that Sanford-Brown deceived them into taking out loans to get an “education” that would never lead to gainful employment. But now that the rules appear to be changing in favor of the predatory for-profit college industry, and after years of waiting and suffering from damaged credit and the threat of collection on their unlawful loans, they had no choice but to go to court.

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