Dear Mayor de Blasio:
As a resident of New York City, taxpayer, community member, criminal justice advocate and a formerly incarcerated individual, I am deeply concerned with your administration’s new proposals that would further exclude people with certain violent convictions from receiving legal representation during immigration proceedings.
I’ve lived in our city for over 30 years, since my mother and I immigrated to the United States from Guyana when I was four years old. New York is a city of inclusion, diversity, empathy, and forgiveness. And I have benefitted from all of these.
In the past, you’ve demonstrated great insight and compassion in recognizing the importance of legal representation and access to due process during deportation proceedings. You understood this to be a fundamental constitutional right. But your new proposal restricting access by conditioning eligibility to certain charges is misguided and commands an unfair moral judgment that does not align with our values as New Yorkers.
This issue hits close to home for me. I served six-and-a-half years in the New York State prison system on a robbery charge – the result of juvenile flawed decision making. After being released in 2010, I began my reentry like many people who leave prison do – by looking for stable and gainful employment. I also wanted to rebuild my legacy so that when my two daughters tell the story of their father, it will be one that they are proud of.
Fast-forward four years. I had successfully completed parole, started a family, began a business, was working hard, and was one week away from completing a Master’s Degree in Social Work – at the top of my class in CUNY Lehman College – when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came to my home to detain me. My criminal conviction, coupled with the fact that I was a legal permanent resident, put me at risk of being deported back to a country I no longer considered to be home and being separated from my wife, children and ailing mother. It was only because I had excellent legal representation, supported by a fierce advocacy effort, that I was granted prosecutorial discretion and released from immigration detention in October 2014.
Today, I am the Associate Vice President of Policy at The Fortune Society, a reentry organization that believes in building people, not prisons. Here, I lead our advocacy, policy, research and community education efforts. I also have the honor of lecturing at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. However, my greatest role and contribution to society is being the loving father of my two beautiful daughters.
Had your new proposals been in place at the time, none of this would have been possible. I would have been denied a lawyer during my immigration proceedings and likely been deported. My opportunities to contribute to this great city – as a social justice advocate, a teacher and a father – would have been denied,
Mr. Mayor, I urge you to listen to community and legal advocates and not move forward with these proposals as they do not reflect our values as New Yorkers and as a country. We have always been a city that is able to look beyond a person’s past and view them as a human being. Moving away from these proposals will bring us closer to that.
Khalil A. Cumberbatch
Associate Vice President of Policy
David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy
The Fortune Society