Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Seth Wenig/AP

New York will continue its first-in-the-nation state-funded program to provide free legal services to immigrants and communities targeted by federal immigration agents after $10 million was allocated for the program in this year’s state budget.

The program, called the Liberty Defense Project, partners with law firms, legal associations, advocacy groups, and others to provide free legal counseling and representation to immigrants in New York.

The renewed funding approved by lawmakers in Albany earlier this week will allow the program to continue into its third year and expand its services in New York after Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched it as part of the state Department of State in 2017.

“New York has long been a beacon of hope for immigrants from across the globe, and as Washington continues to threaten the rights of new Americans we will work harder than ever to ensure they are protected,” Cuomo said. “By expanding the programs offered through the Liberty Defense Project we can ensure New York’s immigrants have the social services, health care, and urgent assistance they need as they seek a better life for themselves and their families.”

The future of the program was unclear last month after lawmakers and Cuomo were reportedly considering a funding cut to the initiative. The final state budget introduced and passed by lawmakers earlier this week, however, included a full continuation of funding for the program, which will allow its new initiatives to continue for at least another year.

“The Senate Majority has demonstrated that we will fight for all New Yorkers, including the newest residents of our state,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester. “Part of that effort was ensuring that funds were included in the state budget to continue and expand the Liberty Defense Project.”

Project Golden Door, for example, provides both legal support and health services for immigrant families at 12 sites across the state. The service connects immigrants and their families with attorneys, social workers, immigration experts, community-based physicians and others. Those individuals are available to help immigrants navigate state resources, the public school system, language services, and more.

A different program, operated in each of the state’s 10 regions, established two attorneys to provide immediate legal assistance in response to an uptick in raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in New York. Those attorneys provide legal support and direct representation to families, as well as children separated from their parents.

Another program, on which the state partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice, provides legal representation to immigrants who have been detained under prior orders of removal.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said the Liberty Defense Project is another arm of New York’s efforts to position itself against federal immigration policies out of Washington, D.C.

“While the federal administration has continued its cruel and racist attacks on immigrants, New York has led the way by providing access to critical legal services for those trying to build a better life in our communities,” Heastie said. “The Assembly Majority will continue working to make New York State a welcoming place where people can grow and thrive, regardless of where they were born or where they are from.”

More than 30,000 legal services have been provided to immigrants and communities in need since the start of the Liberty Defense Project, according to Cuomo’s office. Aside from direct legal representation, the program also provides free legal training sessions to immigrants and their communities.

A quarter of immigrants in New York-based detention who were represented by attorneys with the Liberty Defense Project have been released and reunited with their families, according to Cuomo’s office.

The program is separate from the 19 attorneys Cuomo had announced were hired earlier this week to work with the state Office of New Americans to provide legal services to immigrants in different regions throughout the state.


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