As COVID-19 buffets the United States, NYU Law faculty and students are taking action to help vulnerable populations. For many clients—including incarcerated persons in densely populated correctional facilities, tenants threatened with unlawful evictions, and others—there is a heightened need for legal protection and advocacy in response to the disparate economic and social impacts caused by this emergency.
The Law School’s clinics and externships are working on more than a dozen separate efforts to support and protect those affected by COVID-19—including work by the Criminal Defense and Reentry Clinic, the Family Defense Clinic, the Housing Law Externship, the Immigrant Rights Clinic, and the New York State Office of the Attorney General Social Justice Externship, among others.
Criminal Defense and Reentry Clinic
Students in the Criminal Defense and Reentry Clinic work with Brooklyn Defender Services and the Bronx location of the Legal Aid Society to provide a range of legal services and criminal defense representation to economically disadvantaged individuals accused of crimes. When the coronavirus caused those offices to shift gears, students adapted with them, focusing their work on securing the release of people from jails and correctional facilities who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 as a result of the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions that characterize such institutions, says Vincent Southerland, executive director for the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law and adjunct professor of law for the Criminal Defense and Reentry Clinic.
Among their efforts, the students drafted writs challenging conditions of confinement, provided research assistance to public defenders, and participated in mass calling efforts to state and local public officials to assert demands from people incarcerated in New York prisons.
“This pandemic has really exposed all the vulnerabilities that we already know exist in our society, and has in many ways exacerbated them and made the harms that people are suffering under that much worse,” says Southerland. “What we need in this moment is all hands on deck…people willing to do things that may fall outside of some of the more traditional roles of a lawyer, but at the same time are really trying to ensure that people are able to live positive, productive lives in the midst of this crisis.”
Family Defense Clinic
For families involved in New York’s foster care system, the suspension of visits and social services because of coronavirus has indefinitely delayed reunions for many families, particularly impoverished families.
The Family Defense Clinic is working to mitigate the harm of prolonged separations by advocating for family reunification whenever possible and continued visitations and the provision of virtual social services when families must remain apart. Recently, the clinic successfully negotiated the release of a child with autism who had been held illegally in foster care after her mother suffered a stroke.
Other clinic efforts include drafting legislation alongside the American Bar Association’s National Alliance for Parent Representation that would extend the federal timeframe during which families can receive services that are disrupted during the pandemic and ensure that states do not lose federal funding as a result of the delays.
“The students in the Family Defense Clinic work very closely with poor parents who are going through the worst nightmare of their lives: the loss of their children to state custody and the possible risk that they will never be allowed to raise them again,” says Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Clinical Law Martin Guggenheim ’71, in an email. “The pandemic added exponentially to their fears and pain.”
“In the midst of this, the students learned a great lesson they will carry forward into their careers,” Guggenheim adds. “They learned that a great antidote to their own suffering– and many of our students are, of course, themselves suffering–is to focus on helping others. Our students poured their efforts into addressing the immediate crises of their clients. Not only did the students achieve success for some of their clients who were able to regain their children’s custody, they also felt better about themselves overcoming the powerlessness so many of us otherwise have endured.”
Housing Law Externship
In the Housing Law Externship, students assist the Legal Aid Society in representing clients in cases ranging from eviction disputes to claims of poor housing conditions. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, their clients face additional problems, including discrimination and harassment from landlords who suspect tenants are ill, unlawful evictions, rent burdens, and issues with apartment fixtures and utilities, says Sateesh Nori ’01, an adjunct professor of Clinical Law and attorney-in-charge at the Legal Aid Society’s Queens office.
“Our students have been helping us in a number of ways,” says Nori. “One of the ways is helping us gather resources and information for our clients, and we’ve been able to use that to produce ‘Know your rights’ information.… Students are also helping us call clients who have questions, who are facing harassment, intimidation, or just have questions about what’s going to happen with the rent.”
Students are also preparing for cases that are currently suspended because of court closures, but are likely to involve new elements by the time the case resumes.
“Every challenge is filtered through the prism of COVID, so people who were struggling to pay rent or weren’t able to afford rent, now have no income whatsoever,” says Raphael Pope-Sussman ’21. “And they face the prospect when court reopens of potentially being evicted or having to move if they can’t resolve their case, but not necessarily having the resources they need to move and find another apartment.”
Immigrant Rights Clinic
Despite the pandemic, immigrants continue to be detained in immigration jails, facing potential deportation. The Immigrant Rights Clinic is working to release detained immigrants and recently secured one client’s release through a federal court order.
The clinic is also helping several community organizations in campaigns to release immigrants from detention and build power in their local communities, says Professor of Clinical Law Alina Das ’05. For example, the clinic is working with Make the Road New Jersey, an organization that describes itself as focused on empowering and supporting immigrant and working-class communities, with their efforts to enable immigrants to procure professional licenses in New Jersey including for health care workers.
"This pandemic has exposed once again how vulnerable immigrant communities are to cruel and inhumane policies," says Das in an email. "We are proud of the work that our students are doing to advocate for their clients and partner with community campaigns to stand up for immigrants' rights."
New York State Office of the Attorney General Social Justice Externship
Students in the New York State Office of the Attorney General Social Justice Externship learn about the state government’s perspective on promoting equal justice under the law through work in one of the division’s five bureaus: Civil Rights, Environmental Protection, Labor, Charities, and Health Care.
Following Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order restricting the operations of non-essential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, students have addressed public complaints about noncompliance with the governor’s order and sent cease-and-desist letters to workplaces that were not protecting employee safety. They have also combatted scams by people selling fraudulent COVID-19 cures and treatments.
“My first project involved in the coronavirus response was identifying an individual named Jim Bakker, who was on the internet and on television selling what he called a ‘Silver Solution,’ a mixture of silver and water in what he purported was a cure for the coronavirus. So I brought that to the attention of the Health Care Bureau, and they told me to draft this cease-and-desist letter,” says Matthew Peterson ’21. “And as a result of that letter, his online store pulled the silver solution products off of their website, the federal government responded after the New York letter with a letter of their own, DirecTV is reconsidering airing his show, and the credit card companies have actually cut off payments to his business as of this past month.”
Posted May 7, 2020