Immigration Policies Drive Rapid Response
Within hours of the January 24 announcement of President Trump’s first Executive Order on immigration policy, while staff members were still assessing the potential impacts on clients and developing plans for how the agency would respond, NYLAG’s phones started ringing and email boxes began filling up with requests for assistance. Since then, as additional policy changes took effect, staff members from across the agency have been working seven days a week in partnership with the City, advocates and the pro bono community to reassure and advise frightened immigrants and fill the information void.
“That’s what we do at NYLAG – and that’s what we’ve always done. The same spirit that brought us to affected communities immediately after 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy was just as evident when the new directives were issued,” said NYLAG President and Attorney-in-Charge Beth Goldman. “The need for us to respond in a cohesive and coordinated way was especially critical given amplified immigration enforcement tactics, increased anti-immigrant rhetoric, and rumors that inevitably spread in times of uncertainty.”
That first weekend, legal staff members from across the agency took shifts at John F. Kennedy International Airport to assist travelers and worried families; they continued to rotate in and out of JFK, and to have a presence on a smaller scale at Newark International Airport for a number of weeks.
An immigration policy response team representing many units was set up immediately. This group continues to meet regularly to coordinate the agency’s overall approach to specific categories of immigration remedies and to review potential policy changes that will affect our clients. Attorneys are reviewing closed and current cases and alerting previously-stable clients who may be in need of additional services. As immigration enforcement measures have become more aggressive, the team has developed a number of protocols for addressing the immediate needs of individuals detained by immigration officials. To keep staff apprised, daily briefs are distributed on emerging issues, providing links to news coverage and legal analyses of policy changes.
Know Your Rights materials for immigrants are prominently displayed on NYLAG’s website, and a unique pocket-size version has been produced in English, Spanish and Chinese, with more languages to follow. Guidance documents are being created looking at policy changes and their impact on clients as well as templates to streamline the efforts of staff, pro bono, healthcare and community partners.
Education and outreach are a key component of the response effort. NYLAG has briefed the New York City Council and legislative staff in Albany on the potential impact of the directives, and several staff members have testified before New York City Council committees to provide an on-the-ground perspective about both the growing and diverse needs of immigrant communities, and the need to expand capacity to serve new clients.
NYLAG has had an enormous outpouring from the private bar, with law firms eager to take on cases, and volunteer at clinics and onboard the Mobile Legal Help Center. In March NYLAG rolled out “Immigration Boot Camp,” a training series to bring both novice attorneys and immigration experts up to speed on the changing immigration landscape. The five sessions, each hosted by a different law firm, provided attorneys with a legal foundation and the tools to work on immigration cases. Attorneys who participated in one or more of the sessions committed to undertake pro bono representation of at least one NYLAG client during the 2017 calendar year with the assistance of a NYLAG attorney mentor. Over 50 law firms participated.
An internal training session was presented by NYLAG immigration and family law attorneys to NYLAG’s legal staff who are representing immigrant clients in other areas of the law. The training enables them to provide basic guidance to clients about their immigration rights, and issues related to guardianship should immigrant parents find themselves detained and separated from their children.
Thanks to NYLAG’s longstanding community-based model, the agency was already working within immigrant communities and had well-established partnerships with local organizations and elected officials across the City. Since the executive orders, the agency has responded to an enormous increase in requests from elected officials, City agencies, community-based organizations, churches, schools, and libraries for Know Your Rights and community education events for immigrants. (Even before the new Executive Orders, NYLAG had ramped up its Know Your Rights clinic schedule, conducting close to 50 events since the election in November.)
The City Council’s trusted Key to the City clinics, which NYLAG runs on a monthly basis with the New York Immigration Coalition, remain a vital channel for reaching immigrants within their own neighborhoods. Leveraging partnerships with more law firms, law schools and other volunteers, NYLAG can screen up to 100 immigrants for potential status relief at a single clinic. Over the past year, nearly 25% of clients screened at Key to the City clinics have been found to be potentially eligible for a permanent path to citizenship.
Comprehensive legal screenings are essential to ensure that immigrants who are eligible know that there is a path to documentation, but it is equally important for those without a viable path to citizenship to be adequately informed. Those who do not qualify for any current form of immigration relief need to be informed of their rights and warned of the dangers of immigration fraud.
“The recent policy changes within the new Administration spell a sea change in the work that we do, not just for immigrants but for all low-income New Yorkers. It is a time like no other and it requires a response like no other,” said Goldman. “We are proud to be a part of a City that has come together to ensure that the most vulnerable New Yorkers are protected, kept safe from harm and treated with dignity and compassion.”