Universal Representation: Behind a Public-Private Partnership Effort to Defend Immigrants

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

"For people facing deportation, challenging the system without a lawyer rarely ends well. Of those who try, only around 3 percent secure a successful outcome. But what if a philanthropic backing for a public-private partnership could provide such immigrants with legal representation, raising their chances of success to 38 percent or higher? 

Now in its second year, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Network has achieved just that result. It draws on a range of private funders, seeking funding partnerships with local governments in both red and blue states. Public funding is the overall goal, with philanthropy as catalyst or supplement. As partisan rancor around immigration strains the very institutions of American democracy, SAFE, which draws support from a range of private funders, is one story of hope amid a whole lot of hand wringing. 

Like so many of philanthropy’s recent bids to protect immigrants, SAFE emerged as a response to the 2016 election and the Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance. But the idea got its start before that as a pilot in New York City called the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which was funded entirely by the city with Vera as a facilitator. “After the election, a wave of deportation would ensue,” said Vera’s President Nicholas Turner. “We needed a protective buffer for people facing deportations. In New York, we showed that a projected 48 percent of cases would be successful if clients were provided with a lawyer.”