On January 30, 2009, Tony Lu, an attorney from NYLAG’s Immigrant Protection Unit, gave testimony before the New York City Council Committee on Immigration at an oversight hearing on the “Effects of Entering a Guilty Plea on Immigration Status under New York’s Criminal Law.” The hearing was held to review current state and federal laws that place immigrants at high risk for deportation if convicted of minor offenses.

NYLAG’s testimony worked to highlight why it is important for the New York judicial system to increase its practice of notifying immigrants of their rights and risks. In New York State, judges are not required to inform non-citizen defendants before the pronouncement of a guilty plea that entering into a guilty plea for a misdemeanor can result in deportation. Misdemeanors may include petty theft or various traffic violations and typically result in punishment by fine or up to one year in prison for citizen defendants. Under current federal immigration laws, convictions for misdemeanor crimes can be construed as “aggravated felonies,” and any conviction could have serious immigration consequences including denial of citizenship and even deportation.

Many immigrants are unaware that they jeopardize their immigration status when they enter into a plea bargain and are not preemptively encouraged to consult an immigration lawyer for assistance. Some immigrants are forced to leave family members and a long-established lifestyle in the United States and may never be able to return or apply for advanced immigration status.

Tony’s testimony focused on the destruction these laws can cause. He also testified about the complex web of state and federal immigration laws that can be easily exacerbated by language and cultural barriers, specifically in terms of plea bargaining: “The practice of pleabargaining is a significant part of the criminal justice system in the United States and here in New York. However, most immigrants are unfamiliar with the concept of plea-bargaining, as there are relatively few other countries in the world that use plea bargaining as extensively as we do in the United States. This lack of familiarity, coupled with cultural and language barriers between criminal defendants and their defense attorneys can lead many immigrants to be uncertain about the ramifications of pleading guilty to a lesser charge.”