Advocates push for $12M boost in legal aid for NJ immigrants fighting deportation

A New Jersey program that has allocated $5 million to provide free legal representation to immigrants has intervened in more than 850 deportation cases and won release for more than half of the detainees, according to a new study. 

The state, faced with a big fiscal hole from the coronavirus crisis, should nonetheless consider a fivefold funding increase for the Detention and Deportation Defense Initiative, to $15 million, according to a report published Wednesday by the New Jersey Coalition for Immigrant Representation. 

Advocates said the program has helped level the playing field for undocumented immigrants during an era of increased crackdowns by the Trump administration. 

“Over the past four years, the number of immigrants facing deportation in New Jersey and across the nation has sharply increased and the chances of avoiding deportation once removal proceedings have begun have decreased,” the report said. “It is therefore essential that legal services be made available to detained individuals in a system that is not easily navigable without the help of a lawyer.” 

Protesters gather outside federal court calling for the release of Pablo Villavicencio Tuesday July 24, 2018, in New York. Villavicencio was arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after making a catering delivery to Fort Hamilton Army Base last month. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Of those who received representation through the DDDI program, 52% were released from detention. By comparison, only 17.6% of all immigrants facing deportation without attorneys in New Jersey were released the group said.  

More than 50% of detained immigrants who had merit hearings — where a judge determines whether a person is deported or entitled to legalize their status — were granted relief with the assistance of DDDI lawyers, according to the report. Others continued to fight deportation after being released. 

The coalition includes groups that lobby for immigrant-friendly policies or work with immigrants and refugees across the state, including the American Civil Liberties Union,  Make the Road New Jersey and law clinics at Rutgers and Seton Hall universities, among others.

The study recommends that the fund, which consisted of $2.1 million in its first year and $3.1 million in 2020, be increased to $15 million in order to serve all detained immigrants. 

Protesters rally outside federal court Tuesday July 24, 2018, in New York, calling for the release of Pablo Villavicencio, who was arrested and detained last month by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after making a catering delivery to Fort Hamilton Army Base. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

When the state announced that it would launch the program in 2018, it joined California and New York as the only states that provide taxpayer-funded legal aid to immigrants facing deportation. Although people facing criminal charges are entitled to a public defender if they cannot afford a private attorney, legal assistance isn’t automatically provided in immigration court.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the initiative, saying taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to represent immigrants who broke the law to enter the country.

“It’s very wrong, especially now more than ever with the tremendous economic times that the state is in, much worse than I think the governor is admitting,’’ Assemblyman Harold Wirths, a Sussex County Republican, said in an interview Wednesday. He introduced a bill to eliminate the funding. 

Murphy, a Democrat, created the initiative as the number of New Jersey residents detained was surging at four facilities in the state that house detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The growth was blamed largely on the Trump administration’s tougher immigration policies aimed at curbing illegal immigration.

Before the new funding, 67% of immigrants facing deportation in New Jersey went before judges without a lawyer, according to a study published by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank. Those detained were three times as likely to prevail in their cases when they had legal representation, the group said.

Earlier:New Jersey allocates $2.1 million for legal aid for immigrants

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The fund pays for attorneys from Legal Services of New Jersey; the American Friends Service Committee, a Newark-based immigration advocacy group; and law clinics at Rutgers and Seton Hall.

Camilo Santiago Hernandez, 33, of Pleasantville said the program helped him gain release after he was picked up earlier this year.

Santiago Hernandez, in an interview, said he was arrested by ICE agents on March 5 after they arrived at his Atlantic County home in search of someone else. He said he tried to get representation but ended up paying $3,000 to an attorney who never showed up at his two court hearings. In June, he said, he turned for help to the state program and was able to hire an attorney from the American Friends Service Committee.  

Santiago Hernandez, who works in landscaping and was born in Mexico, was released last week after five months at the ICE detention center in Elizabeth. Throughout his stay, he said, he worried that he would be infected with COVID-19. Concerns grew when he heard that a guard at the center had died after contracting the virus. 

“Thank God American Friends Service Committee represented me,” he said. “Now I pray and have faith that I can achieve what other undocumented immigrants dream of obtaining and obtain legal status.” 

Monsy Alvarado is an immigration reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about one of the hottest issues in our state and country,  please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: alvarado@northjersey.com Twitter: @monsyalvarado