Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito failed to reach an agreement on whether the $26 million the city will set aside to provide free legal counsel to undocumented immigrants will cover those convicted of violent crimes—though the mayor emphasized that the contracting for the program will lie entirely in his hands.
The “budget handshake” at City Hall—touted as the earliest since 1992—was all smiles and self-congratulation until a reporter inquired whether the mayor and speaker, both liberal Democrats and longtime allies, had resolved their difference on the matter. New York’s “sanctuary city” statutes forbid the NYPD or Department of Corrections from honoring federal requests to detain foreign nationals lacking proper paperwork, unless those individuals have been convicted of one of roughly 170 violent offenses, such as rape, murder or terrorism.
De Blasio told the Observer at his proposed spending plan roll-out in April that, while he would meet Mark-Viverito’s request he make permanent a pilot program for attorneys for those fighting deportation, he would not allow city dollars to go toward the defense of someone found guilty of one of those 170 crimes—a stance he maintained today.
“We agree that the City of New York should help undocumented people who are facing deportation, and that’s been a strong consensus,” de Blasio said, stressing that only a small portion of unauthorized migrants commit serious offenses. “The issue will be resolved in the contracting process. Now, I have very strong views I’ve made clear. And the contracting process resides in the executive branch. So we’ll leave it at that.”
The disagreement broke into the open when Mark-Viverito took the mic. She reiterated, as advocates have for the past two months, that the pilot program—the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project—has not discerned between those undocumented immigrants convicted of violent crimes and those convicted of no crime at all.
“We have in the City Council, we have maintained our New York Family Unity Project whole and complete. And we continue to believe that that system is a model that we would like to continue moving forward,” she said. “And so we’ve actually put money in to preserve it as it is, in its current form.”
A visibly irritated Mark-Viverito attempted to take the podium again, but de Blasio called in his budget director, Dean Fuleihan. Fuleihan reiterated again that the Human Resources Administration, which the mayor controls, will determine what entities receive the money—and what stipulations will be placed on its use.
“That negotiation is still going to occur. And that process will go and the mayor was clear about the parameters that the administration has,” he said.
The speaker then managed to recover the stand, and insisted again that the pilot program should expand without any restrictions placed on which immigrants it defends.
“Our expectation as a City Council is that the program that we’ve put forward will continue and move forward in that way,” she said.
De Blasio characterized as “fair” a reporter’s description of the program’s provisions for violent felons as “to be announced.”
“I think there may be legal services somewhere that they deserve, but not with New York City taxpayer dollars,” he said. “It’s just my philosophical view that’s not where we should be putting our money.”
“It’s still a limited pot of money. I want to see it go to the people I think need the help the most,” he continued.
The immigrant defense fund makes up only a tiny fraction of the city’s $85.2 billion budget, the biggest in its history.