NYC Council Seeks to Force Mayor to Provide Subsidized Lawyers to All Undocumented Immigrants

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito share a moment after announcing a budget deal. William Alatriste/NYC Council

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito inserted language into the city budget today requiring that the $26 million plan to provide legal services to undocumented immigrants facing deportation not exclude those convicted of serious crimes—after she and Mayor Bill de Blasio failed to reach an agreement on the matter before the “budget handshake” last Friday at City Hall.

When de Blasio announced his $84.68 billion second-draft budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, he said that the city would meet Mark-Viverito’s request that the city create a permanent taxpayer funding stream to the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, a pilot program that has provided undocumented immigrants with attorneys in immigration court. But the mayor told the Observer that he would not allow public dollars to go toward the defense of anyone found guilty of one of the 170 crimes that New York exempts from its “sanctuary city” protections—violent offenses like rape, murder and terrorism, for which local law enforcement will turn over a foreign national to federal authorities.

The speaker, for her part, has maintained that NYIFUP should remain the same—and attached terms to the program today stating, “Eligibility for legal representation provided through funds in unit of appropriation 107 for unrepresented, detained individuals in removal proceedings occurring in immigration court in New York City shall be based solely on income.”

“The speaker and the City Council are fully committed to defending the integrity of this vital program and to upholding due process for all New Yorkers, which is why we have amended the budget to ensure continued, unrestricted access to legal services for all detained immigrants facing deportation,” Mark-Viverito spokeswoman Robin Levine said in an emailed statement.

Levine said that it is “incomprehensible” that the mayor would “turn his back on immigrant families and the city’s most vulnerable New Yorkers” after supporting it for three years. She said that NYIFUP has become a national model that has helped stop “hundreds of unjust deportations and keep families together.”

The conditions attached to the appropriation mandate that the criminal justice coordinator would be required to provide semi-annual headcount reports to the Council that outline the total number of staff associated with the Office of Special Enforcement, separated by title and agency.

The coordinator will have to submit the first report on January 15, 2018, which will cover the period of July 1 to December 31. The second report—which covers January 1, 2018 to June 30, 2018—is due on July 15, 2018.

The mayor’s office said that de Blasio can veto individual lines in the budget.

“There is a clear, respectful difference of opinion between us and the Speaker on this issue,” mayoral spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein said in an emailed statement. “Our position remains unchanged. We expect this to be resolved during the contracting process.”

At the budget presser on Friday, the mayor emphasized that—while the resolution of the disagreement between him and the speaker was still “to be announced”—the contracting process “resides in the executive branch,” and his office alone reserves the power to impose stipulations on the provider. He has argued that providing free attorneys to individuals convicted of violent offenses is a poor use of a limited pot of taxpayer dollars.

The Council has provided several million dollars worth of funding for NYFIUP each year since 2013. Some of the immigrants which the program serves have criminal convictions.

The Legal Aid Society, for its part, was pleased with today’s development.

“With today’s announcement, the City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, reaffirms their support of those sacred ideals and commitment towards protecting some of New York’s most vulnerable and marginalized,” the organization said in a statement. “These are New York values and what it truly means to be a sanctuary.”

At around 4:30 pm, reporters chased after Mark-Viverito as she was leaving City Hall and attempted to ask her questions about the maneuver and about the decision of Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera’s to decline an official honor in the Puerto Rican Day Parade—an honor she had helped arrange and fiercely defended.. The speaker kept walking, ignoring reporters as they followed her past security toward the exit.

Newsday reporter yelled, “You’re the speaker, can’t you speak?” and she directed reporters to her spokeswoman, Robin Levine.

Brooklyn Councilman Robert Cornegy, a candidate for speaker next year, initially told reporters that he was “not aware” of the plans to include the new language in the budget. He added the Council members were called together at the last minute before today’s vote on the spending plan—though he said he was “not at liberty” to say whether the condition was discussed.

And he said that if he were speaker, he would not pull such a move.

“Because there were people who were unaware and we’d like to have a very transparent process in the Council,” he said.

But as the conversation with reporters progressed, Cornegy denied saying that Council members were not informed. He insisted he has “confidence in the current speaker and in the budget negotiating team.”

“That means that people that are on the budget negotiating team have greater insight into what happens with the budget and report back,” he said.

He also told reporters that while he has not seen the list of 170 crimes, he believes that the city should finance the defense of undocumented immigrants who have committed low-level offenses. When a reporter asked him whether he would support legal defense funding for a convicted murderer, he said it’s “something that’s up for negotiation or discussion” but that he “personally” doesn’t think so.

Manhattan Councilman Corey Johnson, another speaker candidate, also said that he wasn’t “part of the conversation” and also highlighted out that he is not on the budget negotiating team.

“I wasn’t here on Friday for the handshake, I was in Massachusetts, so I wasn’t here,” Johnson said on the steps of City Hall. “I mean, I saw on Twitter and I read what was going on and was happening but the first time I learned about it was today at the stated meeting.”

Brooklyn Councilman Stephen Levin, for his part, said that they knew before today’s stated meeting and that he had spoken with the speaker’s staff about it. He said that he is “supportive” of the program.

“I support the speaker’s position and I support the Council’s position,” he told reporters.

This story has been updated to note the remarks of Council members and reporters’ attempts to interview Speaker Mark-Viverito and to include a comment from the mayor’s office.

NYC Council Seeks to Force Mayor to Provide Subsidized Lawyers to All Undocumented Immigrants