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Program Providing Legal Help to Immigrants Will Expand Beyond New York City

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New York City’s melting pot has been boiling over in the larger metropolitan area.

Long Island, the lower Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey, home to thousands of recently arrived unaccompanied minors and older immigrants, have nearly as many people eligible for legal services as does the city. But outside the city, there has been a shortage of lawyers to serve those potential clients.


Victor Cueva, 25, an Immigrant Justice Corps fellow. He is eager to give new immigrants in the Hudson Valley the help his family did not receive when it arrived there from Peru. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Enter the second class of the Immigrant Justice Corps, an ambitious, still-developing fellowship program begun in New York City last year by Robert A. Katzmann, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Starting this fall, the Justice Corps will place 11 recent law school graduates and two college graduates out of 35 new fellows in surrounding counties.

And so, administrative relief is on its way to the sixth-floor offices of the American Friends Service Committee in Newark. Relief is also coming to the second-floor hallway of the Newburgh Armory, where crowds have gathered daily over the last year outside the offices of Catholic Charities.

And relief may be coming for cities in other areas.

“We created this model with the idea that what we’re testing here in the city is going to be a blueprint for the rest of the country,” said Rachel B. Tiven, the executive director of the Immigrant Justice Corps. “If it works here, we don’t want to keep it to ourselves.”

For now, Charlotte and Chicago will have to wait for Yonkers and Brentwood. “We pushed ourselves to go faster as the need in the region was so intense,” Ms. Tiven said.

The city is where most of the funding for legal assistance has been concentrated before this year. In response to the surge in unaccompanied minors, the New York City Council contributed $1 million for legal representation, with a boost of an additional $900,000 from the Robin Hood Foundation and New York Community Trust. (The Robin Hood Foundation was one of the major donors that helped establish the corps with $1.3 million in seed money, in addition to $2 million from the JPB Foundation.)

But only a smaller amount of state and private funding for services and lawyers has gone to nonprofit organizations outside the city, mostly to Long Island.

“The lower Hudson Valley, like Long Island, is critical to New York life, and there’s this swath of human beings who support those structures, and yet there is really nothing to support them,” said Mario Russell, the director of immigrant and refugee services for Catholic Charities Community Services.

The organization, under the auspices of the New York Archdiocese, oversees part of New York City, and Westchester, Orange, Rockland, Putnam, Sullivan, Ulster and Dutchess Counties. For decades, those counties have had only paralegals processing requests, such as green card applications, deferred action for childhood arrivals and adjudication of unaccompanied minors’ deportation claims.

Victor Cueva, a 25-year-old Justice Corps fellow and soon-to-be graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, is eager to give new immigrants in the Hudson Valley the help his family did not receive when it arrived there.

He was 11 when his family came from Lima, Peru, on tourist visas, settling near his mother’s relatives in Kingston, N.Y. Having attended private school in Lima, he was the only one in his family proficient in English, so he served as the interpreter.

In an interview this week, Mr. Cueva recounted how his father sought a green card after letting his tourist visa expire. He paid a lawyer $1,000 in cash, in a plastic bag, with Mr. Cueva translating the transaction. Six months later, having heard nothing, they returned to the lawyer’s office in New Paltz and she was gone. So was the money.

“We couldn’t call the cops,” Mr. Cueva said, referring to their fear of being deported. “I remember my dad had this feeling of ‘impotencia,’ or powerlessness. I couldn’t do anything to make my dad feel good.”

Mr. Cueva, who graduated summa cum laude from the State University of New York at Albany, spent his undergraduate years undocumented. He has since married his high school sweetheart, an American citizen, helping ease his green card application. He and another Justice Corps fellow, John Travis, will work in Catholic Charities’ Poughkeepsie and Newburgh offices part of the week, and the other days in Manhattan at 26 Federal Plaza, New York’s immigration court, serving clients from the lower Hudson Valley region.

It is too early to tell the impact the first class of fellows has had, because the two-year program has not yet passed its first anniversary. But Ms. Tiven says she and her staff receive frequent inquiries asking how to emulate their program, which draws from top law schools across the country.

“I want to export our model when we have some really good data to show,” she said.

Read More at The New York Times