It's clear the state will invest millions of more dollars in legal defense services in the next budget, but lawmakers are pushing for New York to take things a step further and become the first state in the nation to establish a right to legal counsel in immigration proceedings.

Xiomara Caceres, 29, her husband and their three sons ages 13, 10 and 4, left their home in Peru last July to flee gang activity and death threats because they led a neighborhood organization to combat local crime. 

In Peru, Caceres' husband worked as a public official equivalent to a district attorney.

"My husband started a neighborhood association so we could host meetings to stop delinquencies," she said through the help of an interpreter. "We could not leave the house. My children could not go to school. We faced death threats and extortions. It got to the point where I couldn't even go grocery shopping."

The Caceres' children started to hear threats against their father's life from their friends, their mother said through tears.

"We came here to save my children's life," she added.

Caceres recounted how her family flew to Mexico and traveled to the cities of Cabo San Lucas, Culiacán and then Mexicali while headed to the border of Arizona. On the way, they became stranded in the desert and almost drowned crossing the river. The family continued to proceed to the southern border with wet clothes. Their 4-year-old nearly contracted hypothermia. 

The family was briefly held in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. After their release, they traveled to the state by bus to join other relatives in Athens, Greene County. They resettled in the Capital Region at the end of July. But their treacherous journey isn't over.

People in the United States seeking asylum have one year to file a case in immigration court. The Caceres family has about four months left until their deadline.

An attorney quoted $13,000 to represent and process the filing for all five of them — a sum they cannot afford as they struggle to secure employment.

"We have tremendous need in upstate New York," said Sarah Rogerson, director of the Justice Center at Albany Law School. "We have tremendous need all over the state."

Of the total 196,128 immigration cases pending in the state, about 36%, or more than 71,000, do not have legal representation, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security immigration data.

Rogerson, who also directs Albany Law School's immigration law clinic, was one of hundreds of people to rally in the Capitol this week for the Access to Representation Act in the budget to give every person facing deportation the right to legal counsel.

"We're deporting people all the time who have viable claims for relief in the United States," Rogerson said. "And in New York state, that means that we're allowing the federal government to deport our cultural and economic engines."

Caceres was not told about the immigration court requirements after leaving the ICE detention facility. She finds work cleaning houses while her husband finds jobs removing snow, trash or other maintenance.

The state has seen an influx of people seeking asylum and immigrants coming to New York, prompting Gov. Kathy Hochul to budget $43 million for immigration legal and social services through the state Office of New Americans.

The Senate proposed an additional $30 million, with assembly members pushing for $40 million more in their one-house budget proposals. Advocates want to see $120 million in the final state budget, or a combination of the three proposals and for officials to commit just under half, or about $55 million, to implement the Access to Representation Act.

It's funding Republican lawmakers say should be spent elsewhere in the state, and New York should pull back on its acceptance of undocumented immigrants.

"We can't take care of all of them — it's just a reality," Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said Thursday. "We certainly can't keep them safe. And so I just think we have to be realistic."

Ortt said while immigration and border issues rest with the federal government, the state and New York City's overarching attitude to be a sanctuary city for immigrants and asylum seekers comes with a hefty price tag.

"As a state, we need to stop insuring ourselves and trying to create de facto citizenship here in New York state, because it's just not going to work, but it's going to cost a lot of money," Ortt added.

But it's funding Democratic lawmakers insist will help New York's economy and immigrants, who make up a quarter of the state workforce, according to the American Immigration Council.

Caceres has high hopes for funding to help her family in the next budget, and make it possible to stay in New York, which saved her and her family's life.

"It's incredible how people who don't even speak your language want to help you," Caceres said, adding her sons have made friends in school. 

"This was the place of opportunities, and I hope we're able to start our new life here," she said.