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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.

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US Supreme Court Upholds Disparate Impact Standard under the Fair Housing Act

Issue Area: Housing, Consumer

One of the more notable, though less noted decisions coming out of the U.S. Supreme Court in the past week was its ruling on June 25, 2015, to uphold the long-standing tenet that the Fair Housing Act prohibits policies that have a discriminatory impact, even if the discrimination was not intentional. 

Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project was brought by a Texas group who challenged the state’s housing agency’s issuance of tax credits for the development of affordable housing.  The group contested that the housing built through these credits was being concentrated in racially segregated, African-American and Latino neighborhoods in Dallas.  The effect of the policy, they argued, has a “disparate impact” on minorities and thus violates the Fair Housing Act (FHA). 

The FHA makes it illegal to refuse to sell, rent, “or otherwise make unavailable” housing to anyone because of race, national origin, gender, familial status, and disability.  The 5-4 decision authored by Justice Kennedy emphasizes that a broad-reading of the statute is necessary to combat discriminatory conduct.  For as the court noted, “Recognition of disparate-impact liability under the FHA also plays a role in uncovering discriminatory intent: It permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment.  In this way disparate-impact liability may prevent segregated housing patterns that might otherwise result from covert and illicit stereotyping.” (Texas Dept. of Hsg.  v. Inclusive Communities, at 17-18).

Fair housing and anti-discrimination advocates are cheering the decision because strong and effective fair housing laws are vital to ensuring equal opportunity in housing.  Governmental policies such as zoning laws or enforcement of housing codes may seem benign on their face, but have detrimental discriminatory impacts.  The same holds true for private corporations such as developers, real estate professionals, and lenders – programs that seem neutral on paper may in fact further disenfranchise people. 

This decision is a tremendous victory not only for those communities, but for all of us.  Equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination benefits everyone.

The Supreme Court Reigns Supreme: Protecting Equal Rights, Access to Health Care for All

Issue Area: Health, Civil Rights


Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that federal subsidies for health care will continue to flow to those who need affordable insurance the most, regardless of which state they live in.  It’s heartening to know that the Supreme Court has again upheld the validity of the Affordable Care Act, and this latest challenge to expanded access to health insurance is behind us.  Here at Empire Justice Center, we’ll continue to work to make sure that everyone is able to obtain quality health care.  Our friends at Health Care for All New York have released a statement – check it out here.

Marriage equality is now a legal reality in the entire United States! In a landmark decision, the SCOTUS ruled today in Obergefell v. Hodges that it is unconstitutional for states to ban same-sex marriage.  Justice Anthony Kennedy stated in the opinion that same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike are guaranteed “equal dignity in the eye of the law” under the U.S. Constitution.  We honor and thank the brave couples who demanded full equality for their families, and the lawyers and organizations who continued to fight for this victory! Today truly is a historic day to celebrate!

Finding a Summer Meal Program

We all know that nutrition is one of the building blocks of healthy and growing minds and bodies.  Around New York, millions of kids depend on school lunch programs, and now finding summer meal programs for kids is easier than ever.

Hunger Solutions New York has developed this easy to use tool to help families find programs close to home.  Click the summer meals button below to find the program nearest to you!


Tags: summer meal programs | childhood hunger | feeding programs

Long Island Immigrant Children's Project: Much Accomplished, More to Do!

Issue Area: Immigrant Rights

Advocates from Empire Justice Center’s Long Island office recently met with a wide range of local advocacy and social services organizations under the leadership of the Long Island Health and Welfare Council and the Hagedorn Foundation.  The meeting was arranged to brainstorm strategies for responding to the needs of the thousands of unaccompanied minor children from Central America arriving on Long Island.  This loose affiliation very shortly became the Long Island Immigrant Children’s Project.  At the initial meeting, we created three work groups to focus on provision of legal representation, mental health services and support, and education advocacy with school districts to ensure registration and enrollment.  Shortly after thereafter, the Hagedorn Foundation formed a Long Islander Funders Collaborative with the Long Island Community Foundation, Long Island Unitarian Universalist Fund, Rauch Foundation, and the Sisters of St. Joseph to develop funding for the Project.

In early May, Project advocates reconvened to report on the activities of their workgroups and plot a path forward in preparation for a second wave of unaccompanied children while still grappling with the needs of the first wave.  The Project has made a remarkable amount of accomplishments so far, but there are still many challenges that need to be faced.  Here’s what the workgroups have been able to accomplish so far:


Anne Erickson, President & CEO of Empire Justice Center, participated in the initial conversations discussing possible sources of funding for Long Island.  The LI Funders Collaborative, including Empire Justice and consisting of foundations that have long supported legal services and social justice agencies, amassed an initial $125,000. The Collaborative gave grants to Catholic Charities, CARECEN, Safe Passage, and Touro Law Center to increase capacity to provide legal services to recently arrived children.  These dollars were leveraged by $50,000 from the New York State Office for New Americans.  An additional $400,000 grant from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock permitted Hofstra and Touro Law Centers, CARECEN, and Catholic Charities to hire additional attorneys and paralegals for intake and representation.

Legal Services Workgroup

As a result of this new infusion of funding, LI organizations will be able to represent most of the children in deportation proceedings in US Immigration Court, and some of those children or family members are also being represented at Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) guardianship hearing s in Family Court.  Empire Justice Center has one full-time immigration attorney, Jackeline Saavedra, and receives additional help with client representation from the Touro Law Center Immigration Clinic attorney.  CARECEN and Catholic Charities are each doing 15 intakes a week, and Make the Road has started taking cases as well. 

The LI organizations are greatly aided by programs in New York City that staff the initial intakes at U.S. Immigration Court in Manhattan.  There are also attorneys who will take referrals on asylum cases for kids not eligible for SIJS.  This collaborative work permits all of the organizations to increase their caseload.

Even with these great strides, organizations are still not able to meet current needs, and are exploring how to somehow link or refer clients to pro bono or private pay immigration attorneys. 

Education Workgroup

The Education workgroup, including Empire Justice attorney Linda Hassberg, has focused on school districts that illegally prevent children from enrolling and/or fail to offer them appropriate placement and opportunity to pursue degree programs.  At least in part due to the group’s advocacy efforts, both the New York State Education Department (SED) and the New York State Office of the Attorney General’s (AG) got involved and have been instrumental in enforcing enrollment mandates and proper programing.  They’ve provided new regulation, community meetings, investigations, and settlement agreements between the AG and several school districts. 

The very fact that state officials have reached out to us to collaborate is very encouraging and much has been accomplished.

There are still big gaps in our ability to reach, inform, and provide assistance and support to families experiencing problems with school enrollment and programming.  We haven’t been successful in getting SED to mandate that enrollment, residency, and program information be provided in languages other than English, even though it’s required by Title VI.  Some LI school districts are doing a good job and the AG can be an ally in encouraging others to interact more meaningfully with LEP communities, but this remains a big challenge.

Mental Health Services Workgroup

This workgroup, including Empire Justice Social Worker Paralegal Cheryl Keshner, reported an expansion of services.  This includes some capacity to address the issues of Spanish-speaking children, but the majority of recently arrived kids are not getting the support they need.  Many have suffered trauma and their parents and other caregivers are struggling just to integrate them into their households and support them financially.  Although the group cited a lack of overall capacity, there was also discussion about families’ reluctance to access mental health services because of the stigma, and families’ lack of time and energy.  Many parents/guardians are working 2-3 jobs, have transportation problems, and need to care for their whole family.

We talked about overlap between education and mental health.  Although it wouldn’t address the entire problem, making use of referrals for special education for students with emotional disabilities, and connecting to funded programs in Nassau and Suffolk Counties that provide school and community based youth services would help.  For education and mental health outreach, involving faith-based programs and leadership, as well as ESL teachers and other school personnel who work with these families.

Project advocates are energized by these meetings, and feel that they accomplished a great deal in the months since the first forum.  Clearly, there remain many large issues that will require dedicated resources, creative collaboration, and hard work to tackle.  There are predictions that a second wave of unaccompanied Central American children will come to Long Island this summer.  We’re now concentrating on solidifying the progress that's been made, reaching out to more families and children in need, and continuing to convene the workgroups to strategize about new methods of addressing problems. We here at Empire Justice Center look forward to working with this dynamic group!

Tags: unacompanied minors | immigrant kids | legal services | mental health services | education services

No Pay No Way: Stop Wage Theft in Port Chester

The No Pay No Way campaign in Port Chester, NY is an initiative created by the Communication Workers of America Local 1103 and Don Bosco Workers' Center.  The goal of No Pay No Way is to make the village of Port Chester a no tolerance zone for wage theft.  Port Chester businesses are asked to put a “Good Workplace” decal in their storefronts, pledging that they follow all wage and hour laws. 

Empire Justice Center provides legal representation to members of Don Bosco Workers’ Center who are victims of wage theft, and values and supports the No Pay No Way campaign as an important preventative measure and a way for the whole community to come together to combat wage theft.  No Pay No Way educates businesses and consumers about wage theft to ensure that businesses who exploit their workers no longer profit from unfair advantages and cause damage to the community.  

To learn more about No Pay No Way, check out their Facebook page and this video:

Tags: wage theft | Port Chester | CWA Local 1103 | Don Bosco Worker Center | No Pay No Way