State budget allocates funds for immigration judicial assistance program

Pictured above is a border patrol agent who detained a migrant worker family who did not have driver’s licenses in Geneseo. TheWorkers Justice Center would like to see increased provisions allowing immigrants to hold temporary licenses to prevent detainment. (Courtesy of Evan Goldstein)

New York State has included a new initiative in the annual state budget intended to further defend immigrants’ rights regardless of their status called the Liberty Defense Project. 

Through this project, New York State has pledged to help immigrants navigate various court processes through legal support and representation and to help immigrants complete applications necessary to reside in the country permanently, partnering with law firms and associations, some colleges and universities and advocacy organizations. 

The Liberty Defense Project previously existed in parts of the state, but this year’s budget represents the first statewide initiative to fund the program. 

 Senior Worker Rights Advocate at the Worker Justice Center of New York Emma Kreyche said she believes such a policy is a positive step, although she is concerned about the amount of money being provided for this legal outreach program, according to a phone interview with Kreyche. 

“The important thing to bear in mind is that simply creating a referral network for existing service providers and pro-bono attorneys—it doesn’t really do anything to expand our capacity,” Kreyche said. “Because the funding is the key element here, we want to see Cuomo move beyond the pro-immigrant public discourse and into really concrete actions when it comes to supporting immigrant communities.”

The Independent Democratic Caucus has secured $10 million to provide legal assistance to immigrants going through deportation processes in tandem with the Liberty Defense Project, according to Kreyche, and she said she believes this project is encouraging, but that the Liberty Defense Project is underfunded.  

Another area Kreyche would like to see improved is the ability for immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses in New York State. Kreyche said that immigrants often encounter law enforcement at traffic stops and are ultimately detained or deported for not having a license. She believes that it would prove beneficial for these individuals to obtain limited-purpose driver’s licenses to avoid such proceedings. 

An undocumented family in Geneseo confronted law enforcement for these very reasons after Geneseo Village Police stopped them for speeding on March 23. Police officers called Border Patrol after neither of the women in the car could produce driver’s licenses and their information was not found in the state computer system. The actions taken ultimately caused an outcry from various members of the Geneseo community.

The Liberty Defense Project has also faced criticism with regard to its advocacy for illegal immigrants. Assemblyman Kieran Lalor of Fishkill, Dutchess County believes that funding should not be provided for these individuals, stating that the state government should not ask taxpayers to “fund lawbreakers,” according to an article published in the Democrat and Chronicle

Kreyche said that she is not concerned about this phenomenon, arguing that illegal immigration is the result of a systemic problem. 

“Without giving people any sort of mechanism to enter the country legally, people enter the country without authorization because they have very little choice,” she said. “The fact that people are here ‘illegally’ does not concern me. What concerns me is that we created a system that criminalizes migration.”

Village Board Trustee Mary Rutigliano said she considers this piece of legislation lacking in specific details, but is encouraged that the state is prioritizing immigration issues. 

“The Livingston County migrant worker population is pretty big,” she said. “I don’t know if it will have any impact on the legislative level, but having more of those services will definitely impact the area.”

Geneseo Village Mayor Richard Hatheway believes that Cuomo is in some ways challenging the Trump administration’s immigration policy through this project. 

“It’s something that the governor is very interested in,” he said. “It seems like a bit of a push back to the president, in a sense saying that in New York, we do things a little differently.”

News editor Annie Renaud contributed to the writing of this article.