Syracuse Immigrant Legal Aid Expands as New York State Funding

The state of New York allocated $10 million in this year’s state budget, improving access to local immigration legal services.

By Andrea Guzmán 

In a far corner of Newhouse 2, a suite of offices known as the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse sits behind a locked door. Visitors are instructed to call or knock to get access to the other side, where a heavy load of data analysis takes place. 

TRAC, a nonpartisan data analysis source on U.S. federal immigration enforcement, monitors matters ranging from ICE priorities to immigration judges’ records. Inside the research center, Susan Long, an associate professor of managerial statistics at Syracuse University and the co-director and co-founder of TRAC, talks through the intricacies of immigration-related data the office sifts through. She explains how TRAC analyzes data involving administrative and criminal enforcement across the United States — even cases that involve the new policy on the border known as “migrant protection protocols” or MPP. MPP sends people to border towns that the U.S. State Department has placed a travel advisory on because of crimes such as kidnappings. 

This year, TRAC has been monitoring the number of people waiting to have their hearing in immigration court under the Remain in Mexico policy, which has increasingly caused more and more people to wait in Mexico since the policy was implemented in January. Their most recent report shows that more than 11,000 were sent to Mexico in July to await their court date. Already, this policy has presented challenges for attorneys to represent clients. Regular cases have a 29% chance of representation compared to 12% of an MPP case. 

A tool built into the TRAC website allows users to review specific data regarding hearings in El Paso, Brownsville, Laredo, San Ysidro, and Calexico. “The MPP app is actually a subset of that one where we select off the MPP cases and put it in a separate app just for [the] convenience of people, but then you can see the parallel information for the country or zoom in on New York,” Long says. At the mention of the state, Long adds, “There are some special things about New York. Public monies have been enacted to help provide representation.” 

In the past couple of years, New York has differentiated itself from other states with its approach to immigrant representation, allocating $10 million in this year’s state budget, something states with high amounts of immigrants have not done. Grace Beckler, an attorney at Hiscock Legal Aid, a group founded to provide free legal assistance to low-income Onondaga County residents, says the funding increased as the climate around federal immigration changed. 

“Deportations have been occurring for decades. But the focus from the federal government has shifted where before it really focused on people who were in some way detrimental to the community and had a strong basis for them to face some sort of deportation,” Beckler says. “That’s no longer the case. We see lots of people now who have valid forms of relief available to them that just need help navigating the system to get that relief. And I think [the change] is that everybody is at risk now.” 

The additional risk is coming to a head with additional funds, as Central New York gains more ability to meet the need for attorneys. Of the 65 people in Syracuse who were in immigration court through February this year, 40 had representation, according to TRAC data. “This year alone, we went from three immigration attorneys to eight immigration attorneys as a result of this round of funding,” Beckler says. “So we nearly tripled our immigration legal services, which was awesome.” 

But in Buffalo, where the caseload is higher, representation rates are slimmer, with 53% of people receiving representation. Organizations like the Volunteer Lawyers Project in Buffalo and Batavia have offered representation help for immigration cases. 

“When we ask people to do pro bono work, their first question is, ‘How much do I get paid?’” says Executive Director Robert Elardo. He says that it has changed over time; now, they recruit lawyers who are interested in working with them and are readily available to help. 

However, they’re more pressed for resources, especially asylum-seeking cases in Buffalo. “We are able to take the majority of the cases that we think are meritorious, but there’s a lot of cases that we think are either borderline,” says Emma Buckthal, an attorney at the Volunteer Lawyers Project. “Or I hear them and I say, ‘Wow, this is gonna lose, and it’s gonna lose hard.” 

Meanwhile, in Syracuse, Beckler says they mostly see naturalization cases and refugees. “I find that Syracuse is really fortunate to have a lot of refugees; they work really hard,” Beckler says. “They have a desire to build a home and build a family here.” 

Featured Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash.

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