Student Loan Victims Pay the Price of DOE Inaction

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Eileen Conor Blog CardA version of this blog post was published by Huffington Post.

On March 31, the Department of Education met with a group of student loan borrowers at a meeting hosted by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These borrowers, organized by a group known as the Debt Collective, borrowed substantial amounts of federal and private student loans in order to attend schools operated by the now-infamous Corinthian College.

In a deal that purported to disclaim any successor liability for Corinthian’s student-directed misdeeds, the Department infused the school with cash to prevent a sudden shut down of operations, allowed for ongoing student enrollment, and brokered the sale of many Corinthian Campuses to ECMC, a collector of student loans. This bailout and controlled unwinding of Corinthian is unusual, but its effect is not unprecedented in one key respect. The Department has evidenced no intention to go back over its books and relieve debt obligations that never should have been issued, had Corinthian played by the rules.

This, at least, is familiar. There once was a for-profit chain of beauty and trade schools that operated under the umbrella of Wilfred American Educational Corporation. At its peak, it ran 60 campuses in 15 states, drawing tens of millions of dollars in federal student aid. After multiple investigations and two criminal prosecutions of Wilfred’s owners for financial aid fraud, the school declared bankruptcy and closed, in the mid-1990s. The Department concluded that the school regularly falsified the eligibility of students for financial aid. This means that in theory, many of those loans are subject to discharge under federal law. Of course, most of those who attended a Wilfred school — often immigrant women without a high school education — have no way of knowing, unless the Department tells them, that they may be eligible for discharge. Yet nearly 20 years after reaching the conclusion that Wilfred falsified loans, the Department is still actively enforcing at least 60,000 of these loans, often by means of involuntary collection such as wage garnishment and tax refund offset.

SchoolThrough outreach, the legal organization where I practice, the New York Legal Assistance Group, has been able to apply for loan discharges on behalf of some 70 former Wilfred students. To date, we have succeeded in getting upwards of $800,000 of debt discharged and money returned to these borrowers. (Over decades, the initial principal on these debts has ballooned from an average of $5,000 to well over $40,000 in some cases, including interest and fees applied by the Department). But the Department vigorously opposed our request that it send a notice to every borrower who attended this fraudulent institution, and temporarily suspend collection. Instead of taking this fundamentally fair step, the Department has devoted extensive time and resources in litigation to establish that it has unfettered discretion to make the “policy assessment” that no action is warranted. In short, the Department’s position is that it owes borrowers nothing but a debt collection notice, not even information that they desperately need, and surely deserve, to protect their rights.

The lack of information and transparency about key options for debt relief is a recurring problem. Today, the Debt Collective presented the Department with paperwork from hundreds of Corinthian borrowers, who are asserting that the school’s misrepresentations and other illegal acts render their loans unenforceable. They are invoking a provision of the Higher Education Act, also incorporated into borrowers’ loan paperwork, known as “borrower defense to repayment.” The spirit and plain text of this provision clearly offers a path to debt relief when a school relies on deceptive and predatory tactics to induce students to enroll and borrow student loans. The provision incorporates consumer protection law, which varies by state. But the Department has offered no formal guidance about how to assert this defense. There is not even a form, which is why I consulted with the Debt Collective in their efforts to create a template for Corinthian borrowers. Separately, and to better advise clients, I have submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department about their policies concerning defense to repayment, and have received no response to date — even though the Department’s response is now months overdue.

I have also submitted defense to repayment applications on behalf of two NYLAG clients, who attended a for-profit school that the New York State Attorney General found had wildly inflated and falsified the job placement rates that it promoted to students. The Attorney General’s case against the school settled and the school paid some restitution to borrowers, but the Department has nonetheless continued to seek to collect from my clients on tens of thousands of dollars in federal student loans. This week, we received a response to one of my client’s requests from a division of the Department, which indicated no knowledge whatsoever of the defense to repayment provisions.

If legal remedies for borrowers, such as defense to repayment, exist only on paper, they are not worth very much. Meeting with Corinthian borrowers is the first step in the Department’s necessary recognition that it needs to be more proactive and protective when it comes to student borrowers, both on the back end and the front end of administering federal student aid. This of course means vigorous enforcement to prevent another situation like Corinthian. But it also requires, at a minimum, formulating transparent and accessible policies and procedures to effectuate borrower relief provisions like defense to repayment. And when there is ample evidence that borrowers are entitled to relief under the law, as here, it is incumbent upon the Department to do more.

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Seriously Ill and Homeless in New York: A Problem We Need to Solve

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Randye RetkinMayor de Blasio has made affordable housing the cornerstone issue of his administration. This includes strategies to address the alarming rise in homelessness, which according to the Coalition for the Homeless, has reached its highest levels since the Great Depression.

In the Mayor’s recent State of the City address he pledged to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. His sweeping “Housing New York” plan spells out steps to help working families, domestic violence victims, seniors and those with mental health and substance abuse issues avoid homelessness altogether, or transition more quickly out of the city’s shelter system and into permanent housing.

These are laudable goals, but there is one homeless population that is falling through the cracks: chronically or acutely ill people who do not need to be in the hospital but cannot receive or access the medical care they require within the shelter system. It’s time New York did more to make sure these highly vulnerable individuals get the attention they deserve.

I am part of Collaborative Housing and Health (CHH), a working group of medical and legal professionals who are exploring ways to address the pressing needs of homeless patients in New York City. Our group includes attorneys from NYLAG and New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, clinicians, researchers and managers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Montefiore Medical Center, and a representative from the Susan G. Komen New York City Affiliate.

CHH is part of a national movement among health professionals to build awareness for the grim reality that housing and other Social Determinants of Health  including employment status, income, education, and access to food, can dramatically impact a person’s health and her use of medical services and resources.

“The availability of medical care alone is not enough to achieve optimal health for acute or chronically ill people who are homeless or living in substandard housing,” said Dr. Francesca Gany, Chief of the Immigrant Health and Cancer Disparities Service, Memorial Sloan Kettering. “Our own studies have shown, for instance, that unstable or overcrowded housing conditions were a significant predictor of missed cancer treatment appointments.”

Medical Respite Programs Make Sense.

Seriously Ill and Homeless in NYTo combat this problem, cities across the country have established medical respite programs designed to address the unique needs of homeless patients struggling with cancer, diabetes, or other debilitating conditions who require ongoing treatment, medical equipment such as an oxygen tank, or access to a kitchen to accommodate dietary restrictions.

These services have improved lives and lowered costs to the health care system at a time when hospitals are under mounting pressure to reduce or shorten costly hospital stays. Patients who would otherwise have been forced to remain hospitalized receive medical care, medications, and nutritious meals, as well as assistance in accessing outside medical services such as chemotherapy and radiation. Patients no longer need to make repeated trips to the Emergency Room, often returning sicker each time as their health deteriorates.

One size does not fit all.

We will need a range of respite services to meet the needs of a city of 8.4 million and a homeless population of over 60,000. Some patients require a medical respite program with on-site medical staff, but others may simply need a shelter with accommodations to address their health issues.  (A number of such programs can be found on the website of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.)  Here are two examples:

  • In New York City, Communilife provides safe, transitional housing for people with cancer and other non-chemically dependent patients who are medically cleared and do not require hospitalization, but cannot be discharged because they are homeless. Communilife receives referrals from two hospital systems in the Bronx: Montefiore Medical Center and Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center. The program aims to reduce the hospitals’ financial burden by providing temporary residential care that enables patients to be discharged to a safe environment where they can access medical care and other supportive services.  The program also helps patients transition to permanent housing while continuing to receive medical care.  While Communilife does incredible work, they have only ten beds and cannot begin to meet the overwhelming need.
  • In New Haven, Columbus House, a homeless shelter, is piloting a respite program designed to lower state Medicaid costs related to unnecessary hospitalizations for the homeless. Referrals come directly from Yale New Haven Medical Hospital and participants are linked immediately to visiting nurse services. The 12-bed program includes 24-hour supervision, referrals to health care providers, transportation and case management services.

Break the Cycle.

Beyond improved health outcomes, medical respite services can also break the cycle of homelessness. While patients are protected and secure, case managers can help to identify appropriate long term housing options. Through medical-legal partnerships, clinicians can refer patients to an attorney, who can help to secure public housing, and public benefits such as Social Security and food stamps, stabilizing patients’ economic situations and further optimizing their health and wellbeing.

In the months ahead our CHH members plan to meet regularly as we develop more concrete recommendations for how New York City can best address the unique health care and housing needs of this population. We are still in the research and planning phase, but have every hope that New York will embrace the medical respite model as we attack the housing crisis in our midst, and fulfill the mayor’s vision of a city where everyone has a safe and decent home.

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Setting the Record Straight on SIJS

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Lindsey KaleyKim Susser

Recent inquiries into a possible scheme to deceive judges in Queens Family Court in order to fraudulently secure legal status for young immigrants has garnered much media attention. Fraud is not acceptable in the immigration process or otherwise, and if fraud has occurred, every effort must be made to uncover it.

Unfortunately, the news reports have called into question the efficacy of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a
form of immigration relief that has for decades protected immigrant children at risk. The reports incorrectly suggest that SIJS does not give judges the ability to fully evaluate cases and hold litigants to the same high standards of proof as other immigration laws. We disagree.

SIJS was created – with broad bipartisan support – in 1990 in response to the plight of unaccompanied minors in the US who were unable to reunite with their families, were eligible for foster care, and for whom the state determined it was not in their best interest to return to their home country.

In 1997, the Act was amended to clarify that SIJS was available as a remedy for children who had been abused, neglected, or abandoned, thereby codifying what was always the original purpose of the Act. In 2008, the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act expanded SIJS to include children who: are under 21 years of age; have been placed in the custody of a guardian or are eligible for foster care; were abused, abandoned, neglected (or other similar basis under state law) by one parent or both; and can demonstrate that it is not in their best interest to be returned to their home country. Only after the Family Court has established that a juvenile has been abused, abandoned or neglected, is the case sent to immigration officials for review.

A Rigorous Legal Framework

Jurisdiction over child protective cases falls within the purview of the States, which historically have been the most appropriate venue to adjudicate family law matters. In the case of unaccompanied immigrant children seeking SIJS, the law requires that they apply with a custodian or guardian, often a relative and the only support the child has.

Family Courts have safeguards in place to investigate and act if there are suspicions that immigration laws have been abused:

  • Family Court judges can, as in any case, evaluate the credibility of the parties and witnesses who appear before them. They are permitted to question witnesses and the evidence presented to them. If a judge determines that any party is not credible, she can ask for additional evidence, deny the petition for guardianship or not make the factual findings requested.
  • Family Courts have the authority to order either the Probation Department or Child Protective Services to investigate the home and caretaking arrangements of any individual who comes before the Court as a proposed guardian. These agencies often conduct home visits and interview the children, the proposed guardian, and other adults in the home. Fingerprints are also required in all guardianship proceedings in Family Court.

Putting the Safety of Children First

NYLAG and other organizations that represent children in both Family and Immigration Court see every day the impact that SIJS relief has on the lives of vulnerable young people, even more so since the influx of children fleeing violence in Central America that began last summer. Here is just one of story, based on an actual client we were able to successfully assist through the SJIS process:

  • Jose, a fifteen-year-old Ecuadorian, attended a NYLAG community-based clinic for unaccompanied children in 2014. His father abandoned him when he was born, and his mother died when he was a baby. Jose was raised by his aunt in town so rife with gang violence that it was dangerous just to go to school. When he was 11 years old, a gang came to his house and killed his uncle in front of him. Terrified that they would return because he had witnessed the murder, Jose fled to the U.S. He was detained by the U.S. border patrol and then sent to New York to live with another aunt. She takes excellent care of him and loves him like a son. Jose is particularly close to her son, his cousin. Jose has enrolled in school and goes to a psychologist regularly to cope with his trauma””neither of which he could do if he were returned to Ecuador. Determining that Jose was likely eligible for SIJS, his NYLAG attorney applied for the prerequisite Special Findings Order and guardianship in a hearing before a Family Court judge. The judge was skeptical because he believed that Jose could be returned to another guardian in Ecuador, and questioned whether the Family Court in New York had jurisdiction in the case. NYLAG presented a written memo and argued that there was precedent for the court to exercise jurisdiction. After a comprehensive hearing, the judge granted both guardianship and the Special Findings Order to Jose’s aunt, permitting NYLAG to proceed with the application for SIJS in Immigration Court.

There is no question that Family Courts in New York State have long been overburdened. But Congress provided for a Family Court judge to make the factual determinations necessary for SIJS eligibility because they are in the best position to do so.

We strongly believe that additional funding be provided to Family Courts to allow for more judges, translators, court staff, and training, and we hope the necessary funding is forthcoming. In the interim, Family Courts in New York and throughout the country must put the children like Jose first, and continue adjudicating SIJS cases.

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Putting Dreams on Hold

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Irina Matiychenko Blog Card

NYLAG joins immigrant rights organizations around the country in our opposition to Texas District Court Judge Andrew Hanen’s temporary injunction halting the rollout of President Obama’s program, designed to ease the threat of deportation for deserving immigrants, and focus instead on removing those immigrants who pose a real threat to national security. We firmly believe, along with most experts, that the Administration’s action is on solid legal ground and the ruling will not stand.

The President’s plan is currently the only solution to the decades-long legislative deadlock in Congress over immigration reform. It does not provide a pathway to full legal status, but those who qualify will receive work authorization and other benefits. Parents and children will have a respite from the constant threat of separation, and hardworking immigrants will be able to find legal employment for a fair wage.

The administrative action permits undocumented immigrants who have lived in the US for five years and are the parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents to request deferred action and employment authorization through a new Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program.

The plan also expands Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy introduced in 2012 that provides temporary relief to immigrants who were brought to the US as young children. The Judge’s order does not affect those eligible for original DACA, or DACA renewals.

Immigrants receive legal services at a February 18, 2015 clinic hosted in partnership with the Consulate General of Mexico in New York City.

Immigrants receive legal services at a February 18, 2015 clinic hosted in partnership with the Consulate General of Mexico in New York City.

Since the injunction was announced on February 17th, NYLAG’s immigration attorneys have not shifted our priorities or changed direction. In fact it is more important than ever to make sure that immigrants affected by the ruling do not lose heart, and know that they have our support. We continue to meet one-on-one with clients and to conduct screenings and consultations in partnership with community-based organizations, elected officials and City agencies. Our priority is to ensure that clients are informed consumers who know their rights.

NYLAG, with the invaluable support of pro bono attorneys and other volunteers, is assessing all potential avenues for status relief. We make sure that those who do qualify for DACA or DAPA prepare in advance for the filing process by collecting the necessary documentation, and remind them that they are still free, if eligible, to apply under the original DACA provision. Finally, we warn them to be wary of unethical and fraudulent immigration legal services providers and to seek legal advice only from licensed attorneys or BIA accredited representatives.

I am confident that the President’s plan will prevail, and that DAPA and expanded DACA will be fully implemented. But our hearts go out to so many immigrants for whom this comes as one more bitter disappointment. We may tell our clients that this is just a temporary setback, but “temporary” means one thing for us, and quite another for people who have already lived for years under a cloud of fear, depravation and humiliation. Even a few months delay adds unnecessary stress and uncertainty for immigrant families who have already suffered enough.

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More Kindness

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George SaundersWe saw a lot of discord in our country this year. The civil unrest in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere; the ongoing stalemate in Washington; the ever widening gap between rich and poor. These and the many other societal problems we face are deeply troubling, and fixing them will not be easy. But as the year winds down and a new one begins, I remembered this speech delivered by the writer George Saunders at Syracuse University’s commencement. Since a new year is a commencement of sorts, I thought I would share it with you. It is a lovely piece of writing, with a very simple message. Mr. Saunders suggests that people take up the habit of exercising kindness as early in their lives as possible. It is not a commodity that runs out, and the more we practice it, the more we seem to have of it.

I hope you enjoy Mr. Saunders words, and I wish you and yours a wonderful New Year — filled with kindness.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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The Measure of a Man

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Mario Cuomo speaking at a rally in 1991. Photo: Sgt. Tracy Santee, USAF, via Wikimedia Commons.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo speaking at a rally in 1991. (Photo: Sgt. Tracy Santee/ US Air Force.)

Earlier this week, former Governor Mario Cuomo was laid to rest. The scene outside of his funeral was somber, stately, and serene, everything dusted with a light coat of snow.  That seemed just right for a politician who, for all his enormous appeal, never played to the crowd. He didn’t care what other people thought, he cared what he thought. His own deeply held principles guided his actions and wrote a legacy of accomplishment built on common sense, compassion and respect.

Mario Cuomo was a loyal Democrat, but he proudly called himself a pragmatist. His ability to balance ideology and a commitment to getting things done yielded great results for the State of New York. He introduced broad fiscal reforms that strengthened our economy, and led the nation in environmental protection and conservation initiatives.

The son of Italian immigrants and a devout Catholic, he grew up in Queens where he served both as an altar boy and a friend to the Jewish community, delivering groceries to a local synagogue. Mr. Cuomo experienced ethnic prejudice in the late fifties when, as a young lawyer, scores of prominent New York City law firms declined to hire him. Perhaps this informed his commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and justice.

He fought for the rights of the poor, the elderly and the disabled, championed improvements in public education, and aggressively addressed the AIDS epidemic. He was the first governor to appoint women and minorities to prominent judicial seats.

Mr. Cuomo was notably sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of Jews. He was instrumental in the creation of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, dedicated to remembering the Holocaust and to fighting intolerance in all its forms. His advocacy on behalf of observant Jews resulted in the passage of numerous bills enabling us to balance religious practice with secular laws.

Mr. Cuomo spoke his mind no matter the consequences. His passionate and outspoken opposition to the death penalty likely cost him the New York City mayoral election in 1977. And, despite his personal opposition to abortion, he supported a woman’s right to choose.

Mario Cuomo was a special sort of politician. He was a seeker of knowledge, a pursuer of truth, a student of life. He also wrote books, good ones. I came upon an interview he gave in 2004 after the publication of one of them, Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever. He was asked what his favorite thing about Abraham Lincoln was. Here is part of his answer:

“Lincoln talked a lot about religion, the basic spiritual truths that every religion starts with. What is your relationship with other human beings? And what is your mission? Well, Jews say the mission is Tikkun olam, repair the universe. And Christians say be collaborators in the universe. Lincoln wasn’t a Christian and he wasn’t a Jew, but he said exactly the same thing. Your whole mission is to try to make this place better, make this living experience better.  We don’t have anybody who talks that way now, and that’s why I wrote the book.”

Mr. Cuomo did more than write the book. He talked that way and he lived that way, and he made this world a better place.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Right to Counsel in Housing Court: the Time Has Come

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For the last decade advocates for the poor have been urging New York City to grant low-income tenants the right to an attorney in housing court. Now, at long last, it looks like it just might happen.

A majority of the City Council, led by Councilmembers Mark Levine and Vanessa Gibson, are supporting a bill that would guarantee legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction. The bill has the strong backing of housing advocates, community leaders and legal services providers, as well as the private bar – and is well timed given Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s outspoken support for more affordable housing and Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious ten-year housing plan. If it passes, New York City will become the first municipality in the US to level the playing field between landlord and tenant in eviction proceedings. 

"Legal representation for the poor is as important as schools, housing, hospitals & all the things that we hold dear," said Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman at the Right to Counsel Housing Justice Forum at New York Law School on December 5, 2014.

“Legal representation for the poor is as important as schools, housing, hospitals and all the things that we hold dear,” said NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman at the Housing Justice Forum on December 5, 2014.

Housing court is not a good place to be without a lawyer. New York’s landlord/tenant laws are complicated, and the courts themselves are intimidating, confusing and chaotic. The vast majority of people who wind up in eviction proceedings are poor – most often the elderly, single mothers, immigrants and minorities. They have few resources, and certainly cannot pay for an attorney. And while they technically qualify for free legal services, the available providers can reach only a fraction of those eligible for services. Legal needs studies show that between 70 and 90 percent of litigants appear in court without a lawyer. The vast majority of landlords, on the other hand, are represented by seasoned attorneys who know the law and understand very well how the court system works.

Landlords who rent to low-income tenants frequently use this drastic imbalance in access to counsel to their advantage. Nonprofit housing attorneys see tenants every day who have no idea what their rights are, or are afraid to assert them before landlords who bully and threaten them, and browbeat them into signing unfair settlements that obligate them to pay money they actually do not owe. Families who are evicted are given little or no time to find alternate housing, forcing them to enter the shelter system.

Public Advocate Letitia James speaking at the Housing Justice Forum.

Councilmember Mark Levine and Public Advocate Letitia James spoke at a press conference held during the Housing Justice Forum.

The human toll of eviction and homelessness is profound: poor health, poor nutrition and food instability, depression and stress, increased incidences of domestic violence, inconsistent schooling for children, and missed work days and unemployment. But the City and its diverse communities also suffer. Eviction chips away at our already unacceptable level of affordable housing, since a landlord can legally raise the rent by a minimum of 20% in rent stabilized buildings following an eviction. Neighborhoods that were once affordable quickly become gentrified, while low-income and minority residents are pushed out of their communities, and sometimes out of New York City altogether.

This grim picture looks very different when the tenant has a lawyer. With substantive advocacy, the likelihood of eviction drops dramatically. Numerous studies show that tenants represented by counsel default less often, receive better settlements, and win more often at trial. Even when an eviction does happen, experienced attorneys can help families on the brink of homelessness stabilize their situation by taking advantage of available subsidies or “one-shot” assistance programs to cover arrears, and by having judgments vacated so that their credit scores do not suffer. In 2013, for example, NYLAG housing attorneys helped approximately 96% of their clients avoid the shelter system – they may not have always kept their apartments, but our attorneys were able to find other solutions or buy them the time they needed to relocate.

NYLAG client Monica Ross speaking at the Housing Justice press conference.

Monica Ross, an Iraq war veteran and NYLAG client, spoke at the Housing Justice Forum press conference about how access to a free attorney saved her and her children from wrongful eviction and homelessness.

The benefit of adequate representation in housing court goes beyond stabilizing and improving the lives of poor families – it saves all of us money in the long run. A recent article in the New York Times reported on a number of efforts underway across the country to track the economic impact of equal representation. In one example, a Boston Bar Association pilot found that for every one dollar spent on legal services, two to three dollars were saved by reductions in municipal expenses associated with eviction, including the cost of shelter, health care, and increases in public benefits.

The housing crisis in New York City is a human rights crisis. Every person has a fundamental right to decent, affordable housing. The City has an obligation to guarantee that all people, regardless of income, can exercise that right. I urge the City Council, and ultimately the Mayor, to codify the right to counsel in housing court as early as possible in the New Year. In the interim, we should institute a moratorium on evictions: New Yorkers’ fundamental right to live in security, peace, and dignity must not be delayed.

The time has come. New York’s homeless population is growing at a rate higher than the nation as a whole, while our supply of affordable housing continues to dwindle. The need has never been greater – but neither has the opportunity we have to close the justice gap, save taxpayer dollars, and make a smart investment in the future of our city.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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A Door Opens for Deserving Immigrants

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all in for relief red web

Tonight President Barack Obama used his legal authority to take sweeping action to overhaul our nation’s broken immigration system. There are a number of provisions in the plan, but there is a clear theme: we will keep families together by easing the threat of deportation for hardworking immigrants, and focus our resources on removing those immigrants who pose a real threat to national security. This is welcome news for all of us who, in the face of continuing inaction by Congress, have been calling on the President to do everything within his power to improve how immigration laws are enforced.

According to a briefing by US Citizenship & Immigration Services, delivered shortly before the President’s address, the plan will provide protection from deportation for an estimated 5 million unauthorized immigrants.

The provision with the largest impact will provide relief to the parents of children who are US citizens and Legal Permanent Residents. Eligible parents must have been living in the United States for at least five years, pass a criminal background check, and pay income taxes.

The plan also expands Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy introduced in 2012 that provides temporary relief to immigrants who were brought to the US as young children. Specifically: the date for when an immigrant must have arrived in the US has been moved from June 2007 to January 1, 2010; the maximum age limit (31 years as of June 2012) has been eliminated; and the duration of a recipient’s temporary work authorization has been increased from two years to three years.

While not a pathway to full legal status or public benefits, those who qualify will no longer live under the threat of deportation, and will be entitled to receive employment authorization and other benefits including Social Security numbers and state-issued identification. This will remove a crippling barrier for many hardworking immigrants who have been forced to work under the table, often for illegally low wages and in substandard conditions. Most importantly, thousands of families who have lived in fear can now be assured that parents and children will not be torn apart.

The plan includes a number of other welcome steps that will shift enforcement emphasis away from deporting immigrants with strong community ties and no criminal records by eliminating a controversial Homeland Security Program that rapidly pushes immigrants into detention and deportation, and by strengthening policy guidance for immigration authorities, and implementing immigration court reforms.

NYLAG immigration staff eagerly awaiting the President's announcement.

NYLAG immigration staff eagerly awaiting the President’s announcement.

Every day, immigration attorneys have had the unfortunate task of telling an unauthorized immigrant that she or he is not eligible for any form of immigration relief. Here is one such story: Cristina came to the US from the Dominican Republic in 2000 on a temporary visa to help care for an elderly aunt with chronic health problems. She stayed on after her visa expired and settled in Brooklyn, where she met her future husband, who is also undocumented. The couple had two daughters, now 10 and 8. In 2009, Cristina’s husband was seized by immigration authorities on his way home from a visit with relatives in New Jersey. He was deported soon after. Separated from her husband, and desperate to avoid being deported, Cristina has lived a life of fear, isolation and poverty, constantly worried that she will be discovered and taken away from her daughters. For the last seven years she has cleaned houses for a living to avoid being asked for the working papers she does not have.

Thanks to President Obama’s plan, Cristina is now eligible, as the parent of US citizens, for protection from deportation and can be granted work authorization, giving her the opportunity to find a better paying job and support her family.

Get Help Infographic

The implications of the President’s action for New York City’s immigrants, and those of us who serve them, are enormous. An estimated 300,000 City residents may be eligible for relief. There will be a several month period of preparation before these measures take effect. During what is sure to be a confusing time for a vulnerable population, our priority now is to provide clear, consistent information that can help people prepare, understand their rights, and avoid immigration fraud. We look forward to working with City and State agencies, elected officials, community organizations and funders to create a Citywide initiative that will help deserving immigrants safely and efficiently navigate this new legal landscape. Click here for more information about NYLAG’s Administrative Relief readiness plan.

This is a great day for millions of people, and especially for New York – a city built on the dreams of generations of immigrants. But the promise of comprehensive reform remains tragically unfulfilled for many. Only Congress can take the action necessary to alleviate the hardships suffered by the millions of immigrants not touched by what happened today. 

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Thank you, Esther

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Esther Peterseil shares her story with NYLAG staff.

Esther Peterseil (rear center).

Last week a number of us at NYLAG had the opportunity to hear Esther Peterseil, a survivor of the Holocaust, tell her story. Esther is a longtime NYLAG volunteer who has devoted much of her life to making sure the story of the Holocaust is never forgotten. I felt compelled to help her in this task, by sharing her story with you.

I hope that Esther will forgive me for telling you that she is almost 90 years old – although if you met her you would never think so. She sat in our conference room, ramrod straight, beautifully dressed, her hair perfect, her glasses perched on her nose, as she read to us plainly about the horrific details of all that she has endured, and all that her family suffered.

Esther was almost 13 years old in 1939 when the Germans invaded her small town in Western Poland, one of the first to be occupied. She and her family lived in hiding in a tunnel they created between their apartment and the building next door. For two years, they lived in darkness. Eventually they were discovered and sent to the town’s ghetto. Her older brother and sister were taken away immediately. The rest of the family worked in sweatshops making uniforms for Nazi soldiers. “We were useful,” she said.

In August of 1943, Esther, her parents, her younger sister Bala, and an older brother were shipped in a boxcar to Auschwitz and then marched to Birkenau. At the moment of their forced separation from each other, Esther’s mother told her that she must take good care of Bala, who had a bad heart as a result of rheumatic fever; she must make sure they both survived; and she must never stop telling the story of what happened to them. Esther never saw her parents again. Her mother was 49 years old when she was killed. Esther did take care of Bala, risking her own life in the process, and both girls did survive the Holocaust, somehow enduring Birkenau and the infamous death march.

Esther and Bala returned to their hometown in Poland and reunited with their one brother who had survived. They were the only ones out of a family of eight children left alive. But any joy at their homecoming was short-lived. One day, Esther greeted a woman in the market who had been the family’s housekeeper for many years before the war, almost a member of their family. The woman looked at her coldly and said she had expected that Esther would be dead by now. It was then Esther knew that Poland was no longer her home.

Bala, whose health had steadily declined, died in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Austria. Esther and her future husband, whom she met in the DP camp, were not able to immigrate to Palestine, eventually finding their way to New York. But Esther, ever true to her mother’s wishes, was able to arrange for Bala to be buried in Israel, the only place she would accept as home for her beloved sister.

Esther and her husband had two children, who have blessed them with 12 grandchildren. When each grandchild turned 14, Esther took them to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Esther has spent her life telling her story, to young people in particular, as she did with us last week. She also spends her time volunteering for several nonprofits, including NYLAG.

As the Jewish holiday season draws to a close, I share Esther’s story with you. Not just the story of a woman who has lost so much and suffered so greatly, but also the story of a woman of great courage who is a fighter, a survivor who will not be silenced, and a person who had the resilience to live her life with great joy among family and friends she cherishes. A woman to celebrate. Thank you, Esther.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Domestic Violence Awareness Year

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Twenty-seven years ago, October was designated Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM) as a way to build public consciousness of a pervasive but hidden social problem. Every October, NYLAG and other advocates across the nation who work to end violence against women, rally to raise awareness through special events and community outreach. But this year, it feels different. The firestorm reaction to violent acts committed by NFL players and a federal judge, and the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, has kept domestic violence in the news – and in our conversations – for months now. I think that is a very good thing.

Purple, the symbolic color of domestic violence awareness, symbolizes courage, persistence, honor and the commitment to ending domestic violence.

NYLAG is “going purple” this October; the color has historically been the color tied to domestic violence advocacy.

Domestic violence feeds on silence. Victims keep quiet and remain with their batterers for many reasons. Fear of retaliatory physical violence is certainly one of them, but there are others. Economic, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse are often more subtle forms of control, but can dramatically affect a victim’s ability to break free. And despite the fact that witnessing domestic violence has a significant negative impact on children, many women stay with abusive partners for their kids’ sakes, determined to keep their families together at all costs.  The #WhyIStayed hashtag, created after the Ray Rice video surfaced, provides many more pointed reasons from women who know firsthand.

NYLAG staff show support and spread awareness with purple DVAM bracelets.

Help spread the word. Share this blog post on Facebook and/or Twitter and click on the picture to give us your mailing address to receive a free bracelet.

So we begin DV Awareness Month with a head start. I propose that we keep the momentum going. Learn about domestic violence. Talk about it with your children – make sure they are educated too. Challenge your own preconceived notions – such as blaming the victim for staying, rather than blaming the abuser for abusing, or the systems that fail to hold him or her accountable. Be alert to the signs, both physical and behavioral, that can be red flags of an abusive relationship. If you are concerned that someone is being abused, ask. And if the answer is yes, provide emotional support, listen and show you care.  Help her, or him, find safety and a chance at a life free of abuse. If you don’t know how to start, resources are available from the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.

Domestic violence isn’t something that happens somewhere else. It lives right here, in our midst. It lives next door, in the office or the cubicle down the hall, among friends whose lives we think we know, and perhaps inside our own homes. Let’s make this the year we turn awareness into action.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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