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Kica Matos from the Vera Institute celebrates Philly's decision to join the network providing free immigration legal services for those facing deportation back in July 2019. Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY
Kica Matos from the Vera Institute celebrates Philly's decision to join the network providing free immigration legal services for those facing deportation back in July 2019. Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

After being initially cut, legal fund for immigrants is back in Philly’s 2021 budget

The Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project will get $200,000 from the city, expanding its commitment compared to 2020.

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About a month ago, a program providing free legal counsel for immigrants in Philadelphia faced an uncertain future as the city had to drastically adjust its budget amid the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

The Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP) was founded back in July 2019 as a partnership between the city of Philadelphia and the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice.

Its creation was predicated on statistics from the American Immigration Council, showing immigrants that appeared in court without legal representation had greatly reduced chances of successful outcomes for their cases.

Immigration cases are classified as civil proceedings, meaning immigrants subject to them do not have a right to representation by a public defender, as they are reserved for criminal proceedings under the Sixth Amendment.

As a result, many immigrants are forced to represent themselves in court when they can not find or afford legal representation.

Initially, the city provided $100,000 and both the Vera Institute and Samuel S. Fels Fund provided additional funding for a total pot of $300,000 for PAIFUP.

Now, under the city’s adjusted coronavirus budget, it has doubled its commitment to the program up to $200,000 for 2021 and the Samuel S. Fels Fund is providing an additional $300,000 grant over the course of three years. 

Both Philadelphia-based Nationalities Service Center and York-based Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center (PIRC) contribute staff to oversee the project. 

Jonah Eaton, a staff attorney at Nationalities Service Center and the leader of its effort as part of PAIFUP, said back at the end of May that the program had exceeded expectations in its short, nearly year-long lifespan.

In May, of the 125 individuals screened for legal counsel by PAIFUP, he said 41 got hearings and 15 of them won their cases outright.

“I’d be extraordinarily pleased if we manage to keep up this level of success,” said Eaton.

At the time, that level of success had a time limit, but now it doesn’t.

During Philly’s budget talks, the program got support from long-time allies councilmembers María Quiñones-Sánchez  and Helen Gym, and gained new ones in councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson, Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier, Derek Green and Council President Darrell Clarke.

This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations, focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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