Inside of the federal detention center, there are more than 500 beds which are usually filled with people as they’re awaiting immigration status hearings. 

“The stakes are really high,” said Bob Elardo, the CEO, Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project. 

That’s because, if someone loses a trial here, they’re being deported. 

“It’s more complex than criminal law and in criminal law, we always give people a lawyer.”

In every other state, people who are awaiting deportation hearings aren’t guaranteed legal representation; they’re allowed to retain a private attorney if they can afford one, but according to a study completed by the Vera Institute, more than 60% of the people detained, can’t. And the federal government won’t foot the bill for the fees.

“Most of the time, our clients don’t even speak English so how are they to know they have rights unless someone is there standing with them and fighting with them,” said Ramon Irizarry, the supervising attorney at the Batavia office where they’re working with those detained in the federal detention center.  

Governor Cuomo allocated $4 million to the New York Family Unity Project in 2017, making this the first state in the nation which offers universal representation.

“It’s important because otherwise these people we serve wouldn’t stand a chance.”

Irizarry says over the last year, since the state launched NYIFUP, they’ve picked up more than 300 clients. He says they’ve seen a shift in the detention center population — not only are there more people there but the people being detained have been in the U.S. longterm; the Vera report shows, on average, someone in a detention center has been in the states for 16 years and 41% of those detained, entered the country legally. 

Prior to NYIFUP, Irizarry and other Batavia-based attorneys were teaching detainees about their rights, through a federally funded program called the Legal Orientation Program (LOP). 

“When someone is detained, they don’t even have access to their records, they don’t know the laws, and the cases move very quickly,” said Elardo. 

Every other state continues using LOP but it ended in New York last year when the governor funded NYIFUP. And they’re boasting seeing significant success rates thus far.

According to the Vera report, when a person has a lawyer present, the case moves faster and people are likely to stay out of detention centers for longer periods of time, saving taxpayers money. Additionally, the success rates for the person on trial are much higher, going from just 4% when unrepresented to more than 40% with an attorney.

Over the last ten months since Irizarry has been leading the efforts in Batavia, they’ve had dozens of success stories. He has received letters from clients; on his office wall, a clock shaped like Honduras hangs, it’s from a client he represented.

He doesn’t do this for the gift though – he does it for the people in the detention centers. 

“They just want to live. That’s it and everybody deserves that opportunity. We know we’re making a difference and we’re proud of the work we’re doing here.”