Chief Judge DiFiore Courtesy of Court of Appeals

ALBANY – At a public hearing Monday on the state’s unmet civil legal services needs, the Cuomo administration said it was working to expand a legal defense fund to help immigrants fight against deportation.

Sandi Toll, the first assistant counsel to the governor, told Chief Judge Janet DiFiore at the hearing that the $10 million investment from the state to the Liberty Defense Project, which helps nonprofits providing legal assistance to immigrants, was a “starting point.”

At the hearing held at the Court of Appeals in Albany, DiFiore asked Toll if there were plans to have recurrent funding for the Liberty Defense Project, or if there were plans to further expand the fund, which was unveiled in March amid President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda.

“$10 million is certainly a starting point,” Toll told the panel, which included all four presiding justices of the Appellate Division, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks and New York State Bar Association President Sharon Stern Gerstman. Toll added that the governor’s office is having “a number of conversations with stakeholders” on how the current funding would be allocated.

New York is proud to have launched the first-in-the-nation program to provide legal services for immigrants.  We are actively engaged with the not-for-profit organizations that are now providing services.  No decisions on future funding can be outside of the budget process or until the state receives feedback from our partners in this program,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi in an email. 

In March, the Democratic governor announced the creation of the Liberty Defense Project, which offered pro bono legal services to immigrants regardless of immigration status. When it was first launched, the initiative had a $1 million funding stream from the public and private sector, including the Carnegie Corp. and the Ford Foundation. In less than a month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state budget would include $10 million for the initiative.

Toll did not have an immediate answer when Gerstman asked her whether the Cuomo administration had been discussing the presence of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers at courthouses. Last week, local news outlets reported ICE agents, in plainclothes, making arrests outside of Brooklyn Criminal Court. Toll said she would have to get back to her with an answer.

During her opening remarks at the hearing, DiFiore emphasized the need for legal counsel to the immigrant community.

“With the heightened focus on immigration, there are many thousands of individuals facing deportation without the assistance of counsel. Members of our profession have a moral and ethical obligation to respond to this growing crisis and to find ways to provide effective assistance of counsel to this very vulnerable population,” DiFiore said.

The purpose of the hearing was to hear from “a broad range of knowledgeable presents” about the nature and extent of the unmet civil services needs of low-income New Yorkers, DiFiore said. The information gathered from the hearing would be the basis for the annual report the chief judge sends the governor in December.

“Litigation is expensive and securing legal representation is expensive,” Steven Croley, a litigation partner at Washington, D.C.-based Latham & Watkins, told the panel, proposing a “medium claims court.”

“Many of our citizens are priced out of litigation,” Croley added.