Fifty years ago, in a case called Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court mandated that those accused of a crime must be provided a lawyer, regardless of their ability to pay. With that decision the public defense system was born.
While Gideon has changed the equation for many indigent defendants, the law doesn't apply to all cases—just those in criminal court. Immigrants facing detention or deportation have no right to a court-appointed attorney and are left to advocate for themselves. In New York, at least 60 percent of detained immigrants lack access to counsel during their immigration proceedings.
But the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project is looking change that.
With funding from the New York City Council and Cardozo Law School in Manhattan, the Project—the first of its kind in the country—provides indigent immigrants representation in detention and deportation proceedings, regardless of whether they can pay.
The Project is the result of a task force of attorneys, activists and experts, chaired by Judge Robert Katzman, chief judge of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
According to the task force, immigrants facing deportation in New York courts that have the help of an attorney are 500 percent more likely to win their case than those who lack counsel. Judge Katzmann says he hopes the Immigrant Family Unity Project will allow more immigrants access to justice, while helping immigrant families to stay together.