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Empire Justice Testimony on New York’s Role in Addressing the Influx of Migrant Youth from Central American Countries



September 16, 2014

 

Prepared by:

Introduction

Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to testify today.  My name is Amanda Doroshow, and I am an attorney in the White Plains, Mount Vernon and Yonkers offices of Empire Justice Center.  I provide legal representation to low income documented and undocumented immigrants, primarily in the areas of immigration law. 

Empire Justice Center is a statewide legal services organization with offices in Albany, Rochester, Central Islip (Long Island) and Westchester – in our three offices noted above.   Empire Justice provides support and training to legal services and other community-based organizations, undertakes policy research and analysis, and engages in legislative and administrative advocacy.  We also represent low income individuals, as well as classes of New Yorkers, in a wide range of poverty law areas including immigrant access to benefits, domestic violence, civil rights and foreclosure prevention.

First of all, on behalf of my clients and my colleagues, I want to thank Assemblymembers Michelle Titus, Donna Lupardo and Marcos Crespo, as well as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, for holding this important hearing.  As you know, the children that are entering the U.S. through the southwestern border are an incredibly vulnerable population who require a holistic approach in addressing their needs.  We believe that if we are to meet the needs of the young people escaping violence and abuse in their home country, New York must look at what kinds of legal, residential and health services are currently available and assess how they might be made more accessible.

Of the three, New York is best positioned to provide for their healthcare needs, at least if they are under the age of 19.  New York’s Child Health Plus program is available to young people until they reach the age of 19, regardless of immigration status.  With respect to residential and legal services there is still much to be done.  As I will describe below, we have two specific recommendations that we hope you will support.

The Critical Need for Legal Representation in All Areas of the State

Empire Justice Center has been working with these young migrant children in our Long Island and Westchester County offices, and what has stood out most glaringly is the lack of legal resources available to them.  Indeed, outside of New York City, the legal services available to immigrants are very limited, particularly with respect to undocumented immigrants, which of course these young people initially will be.  Immigration law is very complex with its own nuances that are not like any other area of law.  Furthermore, many aspects of immigration law are unsettled or evolving, making it even more critical that competent, experienced immigration attorneys are available for these cases. 

The immigration relief potentially available to the children will primarily be asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status.  SIJ status is relief to children who have been abandoned or abused by a parent where a showing can be made that it is in the child’s best interest not to be returned to their country of origin.

In many of these cases there are different moving parts which can make the case complicated and very time consuming, necessitating not only the need for a knowledgeable attorney, but also for resources to support the type of representation necessary to success.  For example, when a child is in Removal Proceedings and is seeking SIJ status, there are three different moving parts in the child's case.  First there is a component in Family Court, second is the I-360 Petition to USCIS, and third is the component in Immigration Court.  This whole process - from beginning to end when the child gets their green card - can potentially take well more than a year to complete.  In upstate New York and on Long Island, where the availability of immigrant legal services is spotty at best, the chances of successfully adjusting the status of these children will be very slim.

Currently the state of New York provides statewide legal assistance to non-citizens for immigration purposes primarily through the Office of New Americans (ONA).  The types of legal services available through ONA are limited to assistance with applications for naturalization and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  To become a citizen, one must first be a lawful permanent resident.  To be eligible for DACA, the young person would have had to be residing in the U.S. since June of 2007.  The youth this hearing is focused on will not be eligible for either benefit, so ONA grantees will not be able to provide assistance unless the program is modified.

Other than the ONA program described above, there is no statewide funding for general immigration legal services, including for the two immigration benefits for which these unaccompanied minors are most likely to be eligible.  While there are some legal services providers outside of New York City that, like Empire Justice Center in our Westchester and Long Island offices, provide legal assistance to immigrants through various other funding streams, the availability is inconsistent geographically.  To ensure that children placed in residences or living with their families in any part of the state have access to competent legal assistance, Empire Justice Center believes it is imperative that on a statewide basis either:

  1. The funding and types of legal services the state funds through ONA be significantly increased and expanded to include, among other services, assistance with applications for asylum and SIJ, or
  2. A significant new funding stream must be created in the form of general legal assistance for immigrants that would allow for the provision of these and other services.


Shelter and Income Assistance Must Also be Addressed

Unfortunately, there are currently very limited options for providing shelter and support to the migrant children New York seeks to assist.  New York no longer has a state funded emergency assistance program that does not require a non-citizen to have a legal status.  That program, Emergency Assistance to Families, was eliminated with the welfare reform legislation passed in 1996.  Furthermore, New York adheres to the narrowest of definitions in determining eligibility for Safety Net benefits. 

There is an immediate opportunity to make a change in New York’s Safety Net program, bringing it in line with the legal status rules used in our Medicaid program.  The change, described below, would make these young people eligible for assistance as soon as an application for asylum or SIJ was filed on their behalf. 

Under the state Medicaid program, the children who have filed these applications are considered “persons residing under color of law (PRUCOL),” thus providing them with a recognized status and access to health benefits.  Unfortunately, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance currently uses an outdated pre-1996 definition of PRUCOL, which excludes large numbers of individuals who are otherwise residing under color of law.  Changing the OTDA definition to make it consistent with the state Medicaid definition would allow these children access to the financial support of the Safety Net program.

The Safety Net program’s restricted definition of PRUCOL leaves this particular group of young people without any support at all for shelter and subsistence while they struggle to prove to immigration authorities that they are escaping violence, abuse or parental abandonment.  Thus, we urge the Assembly to consider advancing legislation in the 2015 legislative session that would align the PRUCOL definition used to determine Safety Net eligibility with that currently used to determine Medicaid eligibility.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to testify today.  Please feel free to contact me at adoroshow@empirejustice.org or 914-708-0412 should you have any questions.