Budget must live up to NY’s immigration values

By Murad Awawdeh | March 23, 2024

Of all the terms some political leaders have used of late to describe immigrants, there’s one too often ignored: Human beings.

The use of increasingly dehumanizing language to demonize newcomers ignores the basic human rights that this country — and here at home, New York state — has long promised for all. Safety, dignity and opportunity are ideals we’ve proudly promoted for centuries. But we clearly have work to do to actually achieve them in the face of hyper-partisan attacks on millions arriving here to pursue their version of the American Dream.

We saw in 2016 how anti-immigrant political rhetoric quickly burned out of control, escalating to policies that blocked both asylum and legal immigration. Eight years later, New York can show leadership in the face of federal calamity by stepping up in the state budget with the policies and funding that truly support people seeking a better life.

That starts with the basic legal services that help newcomers gain a foothold here. The right to an attorney is constitutionally guaranteed regardless of your immigration status — in criminal court. But no such right exists in immigration court, where the vast majority of respondents do not speak English and are left to represent themselves against a trained government attorney whose only purpose is having them removed from the country.

The Access to Representation Act would enshrine a first-in-the-nation right to an attorney in immigration court into state law. The impact would be astounding. Immigrants with legal representation are 10.5 times more likely to win their right to remain in the United States. When people get that chance to integrate into their communities, there are major dividends for New York.

Data released by the Immigration Research Initiative in January show that newly arrived immigrants can contribute $2.6 million in state and local taxes paid per 1,000 workers in their first year working in New York City, increasing to $3.5 million after five years. Upstate, the numbers are similar, with $3.4 million in taxes generated by year five for every 1,000 workers.

Still, even with guaranteed representation, legal service providers remain stretched paper-thin by an estimated backlog of 330,000 pending immigration cases statewide. While the one house budgets, along with the Governor’s initial spending proposal, recognize the value of investing in legal services, these proposals don’t go far enough, allocating far less than the $150 million needed to grow the pool of immigration attorneys statewide.

Outside of court, investments in expanding language access are also a basic step that negotiators must take seriously. It’s entirely backward to expect newcomers to integrate as quickly as possible while denying them vital information and government services because of persistent failures to translate those materials into more languages. An investment of $10 million to expand the provisions of the Language Access Act is yet another comparatively small investment with a big return.

Make no mistake, immigrants also face many of the same challenges that native New Yorkers do, including access to affording housing and healthcare. Funding shelter for new arrivals as they seek asylum and work is critical. But affordable permanent housing and health coverage are keys to long-term success.

To their credit, legislators have proposed significant investments in the Housing Access Voucher Program, which lifts up all New Yorkers — whether they’ve been here 50 days, 50 years or their entire lives — who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Similarly, both houses advanced the Coverage for All Act, cementing their commitment to expanding insurance eligibility for all low-income immigrant New Yorkers.

Taken together and properly funded, all of these policies would add up to stability. And stability means safety, it means dignified living, and it gives people a chance to seek opportunity. Above all, it would show New York’s commitment to human beings who can make a significant positive impact on this state.

Murad Awawdeh is president and CEO of the New York Immigration Coalition