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Immigrant Advocates Release Report on Human Cost of Fighting Deportation Without Legal Representation and Importance of Access to Counsel

Report is Part of an Effort to Create a Publicly-Funded Universal Representation for Detained Immigrants in New Jersey

Newark, NJ – On the eve of Governor Murphy’s 2019 budget address, immigrant advocates released a report on the importance of access to counsel for detained immigrants in New Jersey. The report, “The Meaning of Counsel in the Immigration System: New Jersey Case Stories,” highlights the stories of eleven New Jersey immigrants detained for civil immigration violations in immigrant detention centers. There are approximately 2,000 immigrants currently detained in New Jersey detention facilities at any given time for civil immigration violations.  Individuals facing deportation have no right to appointed counsel, as removal proceedings are civil and not criminal in nature.  In New Jersey, the vast majority of immigrant detainees are forced to navigate our byzantine immigration system and laws on their own as they attempt to fight their immigration cases alone. Indeed, in 2015, two-third of all immigrant detainees fought their deportation case without an attorney. Only 14% were successful in their cases and able to remain in the United States without an attorney. 

The report highlights the devastating impact of fighting deportation cases alone and many New Jersey immigrants’ struggle to find affordable, competent legal representation in New Jersey. One individual, “Alex” (a pseudonym) a Dreamer who has lived in New Jersey since he was a small child, was detained by immigration after his U.S. citizen wife’s green card petition for him was denied. His wife, who has no legal training, filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court pro se because she could not find affordable legal representation. Alex’ second child was born while he was in detention and he is currently still detained. “Carlos,” an immigrant from Brazil, who had lived in the United States more than a decade, was deported after his family paid an unscrupulous attorney their life savings, even though Carlos had no viable claim for relief. The report also highlights the positive outcomes in cases where immigrants have received high quality pro bono representation. “Jonathan,” a father of two U.S. citizen children and longtime NJ resident, who cares for his severely disabled wife, was detained by immigration but able to win release and file an application for permanent relief after receiving pro bono representation from American Friends Service Committee. “Isaac,” a lawful permanent resident was detained and would not have known that he had a claim to U.S. citizenship had he not been represented by Legal Services of New Jersey pro bono counsel, who filed extensive documentary proof from the past one hundred years to prove Isaac had a claim to derivative citizenship through his grandfather.

Advocates and former immigrant detainees and their families are calling upon the state of New Jersey to implement a universal representation program that would provide access to counsel to immigrants detained in New Jersey and facing deportation. Currently, New York State provides universal legal representation for low-income, detained immigrants and twelve more jurisdictions across the country have implemented or are in the process of implementing similar programs. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), which pioneered universal representation for detained indigent immigrants in deportation proceedings in New York City, led to a successful outcome in 48% of all cases, whereas before this program started only 4% of people without attorneys were able to avoid deportation.

Nicole Miller, Legal Services Director of the American Friends Service Committee said, "A state-funded universal representation project is critical to protect the due process rights of both long-time New Jersey residents, individuals with deep ties to our communities and with families who would be devastated by their detention and deportation, as well as recently arrived immigrants fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries."

Lori Nessel, Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law said, “Universal Legal Representation would ensure that all low-income detained immigrants have access to counsel; affording due process is essential in light of the magnitude of what is at stake for immigrants facing deportation and the legitimacy of our legal system.”

Sara Cullinane, Director of Make the Road New Jersey said, “These case stories demonstrate the growing urgency to address New Jersey’s crisis in high quality, affordable immigration legal services, particularly for detained immigrants. As immigration arrests skyrocket in New Jersey – at a rate higher than the national average – it is critical that our state step up to protect due process rights, ensure family unity and defend our immigrant communities.”

The report, “The Meaning of Counsel in the Immigration System: New Jersey Case Stories” was authored by the ACLU of New Jersey, American Friends Service Committee, Make the Road New Jersey and the Seton Hall University School of Law - Center for Social Justice. The report may be found here.

Former immigrant detainees and their families are available for interviews upon request.

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