Legal Aid Society

Projects, Units & Initiatives

Immigration Law Unit – Federal

As a result of harmful changes to immigration law and policy, Legal Aid’s clients are increasingly unable to access justice before the USCIS and the immigration courts. To ensure that they get a fair hearing, Legal Aid is at the forefront of litigation in federal court—all the way from the district courts to the United States Supreme Court.

Legal Aid’s Immigration Law Unit has grown its Federal Practice team from one attorney with no dedicated paralegal support to two supervising attorneys, two staff attorneys, and a paralegal, all of whom work primarily on cases pending before the federal district and circuit courts.  We frequently partner with law schools and private law firms to expand our capacity and impact.

Among are many cases, we have appeals pending in the Second Circuit that challenge agency decisions imposing harsh immigration consequences for minor criminal offenses and agency decisions improperly limiting relief under our asylum laws and the Convention Against Torture.

We regularly file habeas corpus cases challenging our clients’ arbitrary and often prolonged incarceration by ICE while they litigate their immigration cases. Many of our clients have suffered past trauma and are at high risk of suffering severe irreparable harm when they are imprisoned by ICE. By securing their release from unnecessary detention, we are able to ensure that our clients can litigate their immigration cases while at liberty.

In addition, we have teamed up with our colleagues in Legal Aid’s Civil Law Reform Unit to bring class action litigation seeking to enjoin some of the government’s most pernicious and destructive policies, such as the arbitrary denial of relief to young immigrants; the restriction of family-based immigration by individuals who receive means-tested benefits; and ICE’s abduction of noncitizens from New York state courts, without judicial warrants.

Our Impact

Carlos Velasco Lopez is a young man who has lived in Westchester, New York since he was four years old. After graduating from high school with honors, he attended culinary school and cared for his sick mother. Two years ago, after an encounter with local police, ICE placed Carlos in removal proceedings and detained him in a county jail for fifteen months. As a client of our NYIFUP program, Carlos was able to challenge the removal charges and pursue asylum relief, but he had to do so from jail. For many months, ICE refused to transport Carlos to his criminal court proceedings, and he was prevented from defending himself in his criminal proceedings. Yet in immigration court, Carlos was denied bond because he could not prove that he was not dangerous due to the pending criminal charges.

The Legal Aid Society brought a habeas action in federal district court, on the grounds that ICE must bear the burden of proof in bond hearings. We argued that it simply is not fair to put the burden on Carlos to prove that he merited his freedom, particularly when ICE was preventing him from defending himself in criminal court. The judge agreed and ordered a new, constitutionally-adequate bond hearing. After fifteen months in ICE detention, Carlos was at last released and reunited with his family while he continues to pursue his immigration case. The government appealed this habeas grant. With the support of a broad coalition, The Legal Aid Society defended the right to a constitutionally-adequate bond hearing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In October 2020, we won a precedential ruling from the Court, which held that the government, not our clients, bear the burden of proof in cases involving challenges to prolonged detention in immigration jails.

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