This Monday, April 28th, William Gunn, the General Counsel for the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), will speak at the New York City Bar Association on the needs of our nation’s veterans. He will be joined by the VA’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Hughes Turner, on a panel moderated by Phil Carter, who served as the National Veterans Director for President Obama’s campaign and is now a scholar at the Center for a New American Security. We invite you to attend to learn more about what we as attorneys can be doing for our veterans.

The enduring hardships many returning soldiers face are often exacerbated by the difficulties they encounter in obtaining the benefits to which they are entitled. There are an estimated 190,000 veterans living in New York City, many of whom are disabled as a result of their military service. The VA administers a range of benefits, including disability compensation, and seeks to meet the healthcare needs of veterans. The VA is responsible for evaluating any service-related conditions and determining the amount of compensation benefits to be paid.

Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are applying for VA benefits at higher rates than veterans of previous wars. The number of claims filed by this group is expected to increase even more as the years unfold. Studies show that the peak years for government healthcare and compensation costs for veterans usually comes 30 to 40 years after those wars end. Vietnam veterans make up the majority of the VA’s current caseload. The VA also works on claims from veterans of World War II, Korea, the Gulf War, as well as peacetime veterans.

The delays and large backlog in the disability claims process has been a subject of concern for many years. As of April 2014, the New York Regional Office of the VA had nearly 9,000 claims in process. Fifty-six percent of veterans who file a claim for benefits at the New York Regional office will wait over 125 days before receiving a decision. The average wait time is 161 days. In many of these cases, receipt of a decision is not necessarily the end of the process. The veteran may need to appeal an improper denial of a claim for benefits or the assignment of an incorrect disability rating or effective date. Historically, the wait time for a decision on an appealed claim will be even longer than the wait time for the initial decision.

At the City Bar Justice Center, we have operated a pro bono program for the past six years, helping low-income disabled veterans claim their VA benefits. The Veterans Assistance Project is funded by the Robin Hood Foundation. Veterans who have legal assistance completing their initial benefits claims are more likely to receive the benefits to which they are entitled and less likely to need to appeal a decision in the future. Attorneys are able to help veterans develop evidence, gathering medical and service records that may be difficult to obtain or incomplete. Attorneys are also able to assist veterans in demonstrating the link between their current disabilities and their time in service. Our Project works closely with veterans programs at Legal Services New York and the Urban Justice Center to meet the other civil legal needs of the veteran community.

Many of the clients we serve are homeless or at risk of homelessness. The monthly benefit payment for a veteran with a service-connected disability can range from $130 per month to over $3,000 per month, depending on the severity of the disability and the number of dependents. VA benefits are an important anti-poverty resource and can make a huge difference in veterans’ ability to pay for housing, food, clothing, and take care of their families. The VA will also pay retroactive benefits back until the date the claim was first filed. Veterans who have been waiting a long time for their claims to finally be decided correctly can receive significant retroactive awards. The Veterans Assistance Project has helped some veterans with severe disabilities receive retroactive awards of over $100,000.

To learn more about what the VA is doing to help veterans, please register for Monday’s event here. If you would like to get your firm or corporate legal department involved in the Veterans Assistance Project, please email Caitlin Kilroy here.

Caitlin Kilroy is Staff Attorney for the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project

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On April 9, the City Bar Justice Center’s 9th Annual Gala will honor the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz and the global financial services company UBS with the 2014 City Bar Justice Awards, for their leadership and dedication to pro bono service.

The annual gala is a fundraising event vital for the Justice Center to continue its work in protecting the rights of over 20,000 New Yorkers each year who cannot afford legal assistance. Through pro bono legal representation, know-your-rights presentations, clinics targeting specific legal needs, and a free Legal Hotline, the Justice Center provides over $20 million worth of legal assistance each year.

The law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz handles a range of pro bono work in the areas of immigration, intellectual property, not-for-profit, tax, trusts and estates, and real estate. The Justice Center recognizes the positive impact Wachtell Lipton has had on the New York community through leadership of numerous philanthropic and public policy causes and support for nonprofit institutions, in addition to its pro bono contributions. In 2013, the head of Wachtell’s Trusts and Estates Practice founded the pro bono Planning and Estates Law Project (PELP) at the City Bar Justice Center to address the gap in free legal services for low-income New Yorkers facing end-of-life and estate-planning issues.

UBS actively encourages the volunteering activities of its employees. In the New York metropolitan area, UBS attorneys are involved in three key City Bar Justice Center programs: the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund legal clinics, the Immigrant Women & Children Project, and the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project.

“We are pleased to recognize organizations that provide pro bono legal services to the underserved. The value they place on improving the lives of underrepresented individuals and the community as a whole serves as a reminder of the importance of access to justice for all,” said Carey R. Dunne, President of the New York City Bar Association, who, along with Mei Lin Kwan-Gett, Chair of the City Bar Fund Board, will present the awards.

In addition to the honorees, sponsors this year include many of New York’s leading law firms as well as companies including BNY Mellon, Pfizer, EY, MetLife, American Express, Barclays, CBS, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, Morgan Stanley, Thomson Reuters and Time Warner.

For questions regarding sponsorships of the event, please contact the gala office at 212.249.6188 or jennifer[at]emgbenefits.com.

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On February 12th, the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project (NELP) held a small business legal clinic in Harlem in partnership with the Upper Manhattan NYC Business Solutions Center. Volunteer lawyers and legal professionals from three powerhouse financial institutions – Barclays, Goldman Sachs, and UBS – partnered with NELP to provide low-income micro-entrepreneurs with expert legal advice for their small businesses.

In total, 13 attorneys and 4 legal service professionals volunteered at the clinic, showing strong representation from all three financial institutions. Over the course of the evening, these volunteers provided legal counsel to 20 clients whose businesses represented a diverse array of industries including pet grooming, film production, cuisine and fitness. Each client was able to meet with a team of three to four volunteers at once. The attorneys’ varying areas of legal expertise allowed them to advise on everything from incorporation and contracts to intellectual property and tax issues.

“This clinic was a tremendous success. The advice and guidance that the in-house attorneys provide to these entrepreneurs are an invaluable and core part of growing their businesses,” said Akira Arroyo, NELP’s director. “It is through the efforts of generous volunteer attorneys like those from Barclays, Goldman Sachs and UBS that NELP is able to provide hundreds of small business owners each year with quality legal assistance, which most would otherwise be unable to afford.”

This three-bank legal clinic model was first conducted in 2012, bringing together in-house attorneys from each financial institution to assist low-income clients with their small business legal issues. Carlos Pelayo, a Managing Director in Barclays Legal Department, said, “Citizenship at Barclays is defined as positively impacting the communities in which we operate, and the NELP program gives us a terrific opportunity to support this incredibly important agenda.”

 

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For most people, being admitted to a hospital will probably raise some level of anxiety, especially if it involves a serious health crisis and likely extended stay. However, the experience may be even more complicated if the patient is on Medicare. The regulations that govern Medicare payments are many and detailed; hospitals and skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) must familiarize themselves with the rules or risk being denied payment. Clearly, this would be a problem for the facility, but can also have serious ramifications for patients.

An important element of Medicare hospital coverage (Medicare Part A) is the ‘hospital benefit period.’ When a patient is admitted to the hospital as an inpatient, the benefit period ‘clock’ will begin ticking. Once the patient’s deductible has been met ($1,216 in 2013), Medicare will cover most of the costs of the hospital stay for up to 60 days. Beyond that, the patient begins to incur more of the costs: $304 a day for days 61 to 90 and, from day 91, the patient is responsible for the full costs of their care. Clearly, this is not sustainable for most seniors living on fixed incomes, especially those without Medicare Supplemental Insurance (Medigap).

The ‘deadlines’ that arise within the system undoubtedly factor into the care-planning decisions made at many facilities. Some patients are eligible for Medicaid, the primary source of funding in these cases, which relieves much of the financial burden. For those who are not eligible, but have only modest resources, a balance must be found between the patient’s medical condition and needs, the feasibility of a home discharge, possibly supplemented by home care, and transfer to a skilled nursing facility. In any event, in order to trigger a new benefit period, the patient must stay out of the hospital or SNF for at least 60 days. Clearly, non-Medicaid/Medigap patients requiring long-term hospital or SNF care could find themselves with substantial medical bills.

Another concern for patients is the risk that the hospital will classify them as being under ‘observation status.’ Although, by all appearances, the patient receives the usual medical care as would be expected, hospitals are aware that Medicare could suspect that the patient’s admission is an attempt by a skilled nursing facility to restart the clock for Medicare payments. The regulations require that the patient must first have been admitted to the hospital for at least three days for Medicare to pay for post-acute care or rehabilitation services. While under observation status, Medicare does not cover the medical expenses incurred during the patient’s stay. Therefore, it may come as a shock to patients to discover that their ‘hospital stay’ was not covered as expected, and they are responsible for the full costs that have accrued.

Thus, patients and their families must ask pointed questions about their care before signing any discharge papers, as well as understand how Medicare limits on benefits may play a role in a patient’s care while in the hospital.

First, any patient on Medicare must understand the Medicare limits and how they may affect their options as ‘deadlines’ approach. Once the patient is aware of these limits, he or she can inquire whether the same treatment available at the time of admission will continue to be available once a benefit limit is reached. Finally, the patient should also question whether he or she will be required to privately pay for any part of the care provided because Medicare coverage has either not begun or has run out. These inquires will go a long way in helping patients and their families understand the process and identify any hidden costs they may need to consider when deciding the course of treatment and the options available for an extended hospital stay.

Vivienne Duncan is Director of the Elderlaw and Cancer Advocacy Projects at the City Bar Justice Center

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Russia recently passed legislation that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors.” What speech and activities constitute propaganda are unclear, and the law has been implemented to ban not only gay pride parades but also any demonstration raising awareness of the plight of LGBT people in Russia. The law has had the secondary effect of inciting violence against the LGBT community by placing an official stamp of disapproval on it. This state-sanctioned stigma has resulted in job loss, gay baiting, and police indifference to violent hate crimes against LGBT community. The US has seen an increase in LGBT Russians seeking asylum as a result of this worsening situation.

Russia is currently hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The unambiguous, express language of the Olympic Charter states “[a]ny form of discrimination … on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise, is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.” The International Olympic Committee had an opportunity to stay true to its charter and call to task its 2014 host nation. Instead the IOC has supported Russia’s stance by claiming that it is not in violation of the Olympic Charter and that the Olympics are not a political forum. The IOC has warned both the athletes and spectators not to engage in any form of political protest or demonstration during the Winter Olympics. This seems to include wearing rainbow flags or holding hands.

While other nations, notably in Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East, may have a more chilling human rights record with respect to their LGBT citizens, Russia is now the focus of international attention due to the Olympics, which presents a unique opportunity to raise global awareness of a persecuted minority. The controversy will not end, as the World Cup will be held in Russia in 2018 and in Qatar in 2022, where men can be jailed for up to three years for homosexual acts, and the FINA world swimming championships will be in Kazan Russia in 2015.

The City Bar Justice Center is cosponsoring a forum titled Human Rights and International Sporting Events: Russian Anti-Gay Legislation, the Sochi Winter Olympics, and Next Steps at the New York City Bar Association on February 24 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. You can register for the event here: http://bit.ly/1bvALyE

K. Scott Kohanowski is a Staff Attorney at the City Bar Justice Center and Co-President of the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Association

 

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A mother with a crying child in the background wants to know how she can obtain a divorce from her abusive husband. A caller teeters on the brink of homelessness after being legally evicted from his home. A long-term unemployed father of two wants to know how to file for bankruptcy.  These and some 100 other New Yorkers called the City Bar Justice Center’s Legal Hotline in the first week of the New Year.

Among the first 100 cases, 32% were about Divorce and Family law, 30% Landlord-Tenant and 27% Consumer. The calls to the Hotline reflect what is happening in New York City civil courts, which are jammed with divorce/family law filings, housing court disputes and consumer debt cases.  The Legal Hotline seeks to fill the gap in New York City’s legal services system, as many of the legal services providers are over-burdened and under-resourced, while court clerks can provide some legal information but can’t give legal advice.

The Legal Hotline is the largest free general civil legal hotline for low-income New Yorkers.  In 2013, the Hotline assisted over 11,000 callers, providing advice, legal information and referrals on a variety of civil issues. The Hotline also provided over 1,500 callers with brief services,  including mailing written information to callers on their rights and responsibilities, assisting callers in drafting legal documents, and curing defects in legal documents.

The Legal Hotline can be reached at 212 626 7383, Monday through Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Libby Vazquez is Director of the City Bar Justice Center’s Legal Hotline.

 

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While recent studies note that people are living longer, healthier lives, it should be recognized that some seniors remain at risk of being targeted due to physical or cognitive decline, isolation and loneliness and lack of information about their rights.

In New York City, the prospect of losing the home in which one has lived for decades or becoming the victim of a scam is not mere theory; many have experienced these or similar difficulties, or have a direct relationship with someone who has. For many years, the Elderlaw Project (ELP) has conducted free legal clinics at senior centers in New York City. Attorneys from the law firm of Reed Smith LLP staff the clinics and meet individually with low- and moderate-income seniors to discuss their legal problems. The seniors bring to the clinics a wide range of issues, including housing, government benefits, life planning and consumer debt, and each one receives advice, counseling and/or referrals to address their specific concern.

In addition to legal clinics, ELP also conducts community workshops throughout the city on topics of particular interest and relevance to seniors. At a recent event held at a New York City Housing Authority complex in the Bronx, the focus was on senior safety and awareness of rights. The session began with a lively presentation by community police officers who provided the audience with excellent advice, complete with demonstrations, on how to protect themselves from becoming crime victims. From learning how to safely carry a purse to avoid being strangled by a bag-snatcher, to responding to unsolicited telephone calls, the officers provided the seniors with examples of how to plan ahead and reduce the chance of being taken off guard.

ELP followed with a presentation on consumer debt. Living on a fixed income in the city is challenging, and many seniors find themselves grappling with debt. For some, trying to keep up with the increasing credit card interest payments becomes impossible, and they find themselves fending off aggressive calls from debt collectors. A substantial number of the audience admitted that they never answer the telephone but, instead, let it go to voicemail as they can no longer deal with the constant ‘dunning’ calls. The presentation focused on the importance of establishing certain key points, such as verifying whether the debt is really theirs, since some claims are based on mistake or fraud; if the debt is old, checking whether the statute of limitations applies; and being aware that the debt collector’s actions may be in contravention of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The seniors were also advised about what constitutes harassment. Of particular interest was the information about protected sources of income that cannot be ‘taken’ by debt collectors. It was something of a revelation to the audience to learn that their social security and pensions cannot be swallowed up by creditors, contrary to what some debt collectors tell them. At the end of the session, the seniors felt more confident, empowered and prepared.

Another successful community event recently took place at the Peter Dellamonica Jr. Senior Center in Astoria, Queens. Approximately 40 seniors attended a presentation on life planning preparation conducted by one of ELP’s volunteer attorneys, Oscar Straus, III.  The audience was advised about the importance of advance planning, using wills, health care directives and powers of attorney.  A similar presentation is scheduled at the Stein Senior Center this month.

 

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In late 2013, the City Bar Justice Center and the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center co-sponsored a conference in Hartford on legal problems faced by veterans. Legal services providers from 10 different organizations from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Maine attended the Veterans Legal Services Provider Conference. The group of veterans advocates included representatives from bar associations, local and national legal service providers, law firms and law schools all committed to serving veterans.

The participants’ diverse perspectives and a range of expertise in different legal practice areas provided for a unique platform for collaboration to assist veterans.  Lawyers working on veterans issues took this opportunity to discuss the challenges of their work and strategize about solutions. A significant issue that many veterans face is difficulty in accessing VA disability benefits for injuries related to their service. The attendees discussed the obstacle of long wait times at the VA and regional differences in the processing of these claims. The Veterans Assistance Project at the City Bar Justice Center recruits, trains, and mentors pro bono volunteers from firms and corporations around New York City to help veterans with these claims for benefits.  Participants also discussed ways they support the pro bono volunteers who work with their organizations to most effectively leverage legal services for veterans.

The attendees agreed that there is a great need for more legal assistance for veterans, mainly in the areas of family law and housing.  A bill is currently pending in the U.S. Senate that would authorize the VA to fund legal services for veterans. The legal services providers that assist veterans are watching this bill with great interest and working to make the need for legal services known.

Veterans who are given less than honorable discharges from the military often face additional significant barriers adjusting to civilian life.  These discharges can impact veterans’ ability to find work and can make them ineligible for important VA benefits, such as the GI Bill, healthcare or disability compensation. Many of the legal services providers that attended the conference are interested in helping veterans file for discharge upgrades given the lack of services available in this area.  Overcoming these discharges can be an important first step in allowing veterans to become self-sufficient. Caitlin Kilroy, Staff Attorney on the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project noted, “In our clinics, we have seen many deserving veterans who have been discharged for behavior that likely resulted from an underlying mental health issue, such as PTSD.”

Professor Michael Wishnie of the Yale Veterans Legal Services clinic delivered the keynote address. He spoke about the wide-ranging legal issues that the clinic tackles on behalf of veterans. Each clinic student works on both individual matters with a veteran, such as an application for VA benefits, and on systemic legal issues. For example, the clinic has sought public records regarding the incidence of sexual assault in the military, fought to expand pretrial diversion programs for veterans, and sued the military for failing to properly review discharge upgrade applications from veterans with PTSD. The depth and breadth of the work of the Yale Veterans Legal Services clinic inspired attendees to discuss ways they might be able to expand the scope of the services they offer to veterans.

The networking opportunity and chance to pool expertise and resources provided by the conference was invaluable. Carol Bockner, Director of the Veterans Assistance Project and Director of Pro Bono Initiatives at the City Bar Justice Center said, “We look forward to continuing to work together in our shared mission to help veterans in need.”

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When Tania Lopez, a single mother of two from the Bronx, was laid off from her job in 2006, she decided to turn misfortune into opportunity and use her entrepreneurial spirit to follow her passion for food. Tania spent most of her life in the South Bronx but moved to Puerto Rico for ten years to raise her children. It was there that she delighted in the gastronomic culture of her native country and grew accustomed to cooking all of her dishes from scratch. Upon returning to the United States, however, her fast-paced New York lifestyle left her little time to carry on with her healthy eating habits. Tania found herself resorting to more efficient – yet less healthy – fast food to accommodate her busy schedule, and she felt her health decline as a result.

Tania LopezLooking around her local, predominantly Latino community, Tania saw that she was not alone. She constantly heard complaints from her friends and family about their weight, diabetes, heart problems, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Realizing that these widespread health problems were inextricably linked to an American habit of depending on overly-processed food, Tania was inspired to start Coquí the Chef, a company that promotes a holistic approach to eating through healthy recipes and fresh ingredients. The company’s philosophy centers on the idea that cooking at home is not only essential, but fun as well. The entrepreneur said, “I grew tired of hearing about obesity, diabetes and other life threatening health issues taking lives. I got to the point where I realized I no longer wanted health issues to control me or my loved ones, so I decided to look into food instead of relying on western medicine to ‘fix’ us. My exploration led me on a journey… a journey into a different world: one that acknowledges the wonders of food.” Tania chose the coquí frog to be her company’s mascot due to the endangered amphibian’s symbolic importance to her native island, and she partnered with talented graphic artists to draw up the cartoon frog.

Coqui frogIn January 2013, Tania approached the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project for assistance with a trademark application. Through NELP, Tania was paired with Jordana Garellek, an associate at Duane Morris LLP who helped her trademark her business name and logo. They discussed other intellectual property issues and plans for expanding her business as well, such as licensing her mark and creating her own cooking show. Ms. Garellek remarked on Tania’s entrepreneurship: “She has been a pleasure to work with and her entrepreneurial spirit seems to have no bounds. She is always looking for ways to improve her business in order to truly make a difference in her community.”

Tania and Coqui the frogTania has a recipe blog to help parents make healthy eating choices for their children, and she sells cookbooks and shares recipes through her website, www.coquithechef.com. She has also started a YouTube channel through which she shares cooking tutorials. And for special occasions such as the 54th Annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade, she even dons the Coqui the Chef costume herself to help spread nutritional awareness! What began as a true passion became an enduring business for Tania, who said, “Coqui the Chef not only speaks about healthy eating and nutritional awareness; he is here to remind us that food is more than something we eat. It creates and defines us… most of all it connects us.”

Tania & Kids

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The Philippines recently requested that Washington designate the country for Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The request was made in the devastating wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which has killed more than 6,000 people, displaced more than four million, and affected an estimated 12 million since it struck the Philippines on November 8th, 2013.

What is TPS?
TPS is a temporary, humanitarian form of relief extended to foreign nationals who hail from a country suffering from an ongoing armed conflict or, like the Philippines, a natural calamity that makes it unsafe for them to return. Individuals who receive TPS are not removable from the United States, can obtain work authorization, and may be granted travel authorization. “It’s meant to help people who are in the U.S. and whose conditions in their home country prevent them from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately,” said Claire Nicholson, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “It allows them to stay in the U.S. and work until they can safely return home.”  However, as TPS does not lead to permanent resident status, when the designation terminates beneficiaries revert to the same immigration status they maintained before TPS or to any other status they may have acquired while registered for TPS.

Current TPS designated countries include El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Syria.

How Would TPS Benefit the Philippines and Filipino Nationals Now in the U.S.?
A number of public policy objectives would be addressed by a TPS designation for the Philippines. First, given the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan and the ensuing massive relief and restoration efforts, TPS would alleviate the Philippines’ burden of having to reabsorb thousands of its nationals from abroad during this national emergency. Second, TPS would protect Filipinos in the United States from being forced to return to their home countries in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian calamity. Third, TPS would grant eligible Filipinos here in the United States employment authorization, thereby enabling them to work and send money to support their families in the Philippines and otherwise aid in the recovery process. Indeed, prior to Typhoon Haiyan, remittances from overseas Filipinos equaled nearly 10 percent of the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product. Now more than ever, Filipino nationals temporarily living in the U.S. should be empowered to aid in the recovery of their own homeland and to alleviate the tragic consequences befalling the Philippines.

What Role Could the City Bar Justice Center Play In the Event TPS is Designated for the Philippines?
Uniquely able to leverage the resources of the New York City legal community, the City Bar Justice Center is fully prepared to respond in the event the Department of Homeland Security designates the Philippines for TPS. Within two weeks of the Typhoon, the Justice Center worked closely with the New York City Bar Association and its Immigration and Nationality Committee to issue a letter calling upon the Obama Administration to designate the Philippines for TPS.  The Justice Center also has a long track record and tremendous experience organizing large scale legal clinics in response to emerging needs and crises, such as Special Registration following 9/11, Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA), and Hurricane Sandy. Indeed, following the tragic earthquake and subsequent U.S. government designation of TPS for Haiti in January 2010, the Justice Center immediately organized free legal clinics to assist Haitian New Yorkers in navigating the TPS application process. Mobilizing pro bono attorneys from law firms throughout the city, the Justice Center assisted hundreds of Haitian nationals in receiving TPS.

The City Bar Justice Center urges the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to designate the Philippines for Temporary Protected Status without further delay, and stands ready to mobilize its vast legal network and resources to aid this disaster-stricken community.

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