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U.S. Justice Department Heeds Call for Legal Representation for Undocumented Immigrants Facing Deportation

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City Council to consider providing $2.9 million for special legal services program in five boroughs

By Tony Best
Special to the NNPA from the New York Carib News

At least 1,650 New Yorkers in the five boroughs, many of them parents with young children face deportation to foreign countries every year and when the fateful day arrives families are routinely ripped apart, deprived of their breadwinners.

The tragedy, say lawmakers and immigration advocates, is that much of the pain and suffering could be avoided if the victims of this ordeal had legal representation when they appear in immigration court to fight deportation.

The same thing is happening across the country, affecting hundreds of thousands of people facing the dim prospect of being forced to leave the country and return to more than 100 nations and territories.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that should be remedied, “ said Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, a Brooklyn Democrat after participating in an immigration forum sponsored by the Black Institute and held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “People facing deportation doesn’t have the right to have a lawyer in immigration court. Not many people realize this.”

Nisha Agarwal, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigration Affairs in New York, agreed.

“When you are in deportation proceedings you are not entitled to legal representation but three of four persons in such proceedings are successful when they have legal representation,” said Agarwal, the offspring of immigrants. “Those who can afford an attorney rarely win.”

Now, the Obama Administration is moving to change that situation. It is moving to help immigrants, especially young undocumented people, navigate the complicated web of immigration court. The U.S. Justice Department is linking arms with federal Corporation for National and Community Service and will put up $ 2 million to finance a program designed to encourage attorneys and para-legals to represent immigrants facing deportation when they appear in court.

“We’re taking a historic step to strengthen our justice system and protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of society,” asserted Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney-General, himself the son of Caribbean immigrants. “How we treat those in need, particularly young people who must appear in immigration proceedings – many of whom are fleeing violence persecution, abuse or trafficking – goes to the core of who we are as a nation.”

Although the new initiative will reach out to the growing number of children, their parents and other adults are also expected to benefit from it. The program will run through AmeriCorps, a federal domestic service program. Its aim is to enroll 100 new attorney and paralegals across the country.” They will work in about 30 cities.

Meanwhile, the New York City Council and its Speaker, Melissa Mark Viverito, are negotiating with Mayor Bill de Blasio to include almost $ 3 million in the City budget to finance a broader legal services program for almost 1,000 undocumented immigrants who must appear in court.

“If this program doesn’t go on, immigration families will find themselves again without legal protection and will be railroaded into accepting deportation when many of them could have remained in their homes,” warned Angela Fernandez, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

The Immigration forum at the Schomburg Center in Harlem attracted more than 200 participants and a blue ribbon panel of advocates, led by U.S. Congressional representatives Clarke and Hakeem Jeffries, co-chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Immigration Task Force; Agarwall, a former Deputy Director of the Center for Popular Democracy, an advocacy group that promote immigrant rights; Julio Chavez Rodriguez, the Deputy Director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement; Michael Blake, a former White House aide who is Director of Public Policy and External affairs for Green for All; Dr. Van Tran, assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University; Imam Souleimame Konatae of the New York City Masjid Aspa, a 1,500 strong congregation of West African immigrants; Reggie Reg, a prominent hip-hop artist; and Edward Hille, an award winning photographer.

“We are seeking through these immigration forums to mobilize wide public support for the comprehensive immigration reform initiative now stalled in the House of Representatives in Washington,” said Bertha Lewis, founder And head of the Black Institute.

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