In the Spotlight


Seton Hall Law's Center for Social Justice featured in NJBIZ

Making the law work for immigrants
Clinics at Rutgers and Seton Hall provide free legal services for those in need and learning opportunities for students


Pina Cirillo and Iman Saad are both new on the job at their respective employers, but they’re not wasting time finding the office supplies and coffee maker. Both are on the front lines of immigration law, meeting with detainees at Essex County Jail and the Elizabeth Detention Center to offer pro bono representation through the Murphy administration’s Detention and Deportation Defense Initiative. 

Saad, practitioner in residence at Seton Hall Law School Center for Social Justice, and Cirillo, who holds a similar job at Rutgers Law School, were both hired in January. Cirillo graduated from Rutgers Law School in 2015 and served two years as an immigration court clerk. Saad is a 2017 Seton Hall Law graduate and a former Seton Hall Center for Social Justice Scholar. Combined, they’ve represented almost a dozen detainees to fight against deportation in immigration court since January. In some cases, when deportation is the only option, they’ve expedited it, rather than leave the person in limbo.

Immigrant-led households paid an average $6.5 billion in state and local taxes in 2014 and wielded $54.6 billion in spending power. The 7.9 percent of New Jersey’s workforce that were undocumented in 2014 paid $587.4 million in state and local taxes. With legal status, their contribution would rise to $661.1 million, according to American Immigration Council.

The advantages of representation

“DDDI cases tend to be longstanding residents with longstanding ties to this country, like families who are U.S. citizens or children who are. But with enforcement actions at an all-time high they end up getting picked up and detained,” said Lori Nessel, who runs the immigration law clinic and teaches at Seton Hall Law School. “We help them get bond so they can be out before deportations, and sometimes we try to get their permanent resident card so they can stay here.”

The DDDI program was created in November with $2.1 million of the state budget. $925,000 each went to nonprofits Legal Services of New Jersey and American Friends Service Committee, and $125,000 each went to law clinics at Rutgers and Seton Hall. Rutgers has been representing immigrants in civil and criminal cases since 2012, and Seton Hall started its immigration law clinic three decades ago. The newest program focuses on the needs of detainees specifically.

According to Seton Hall Law’s 2015 study Deportation Without Representation, only 33 percent of detained individuals had any representation at some point in their cases compared to 79 percent of never-detained individuals.

Representation is crucial. Immigrants with lawyers were at least three times as likely to obtain a successful outcome as those who were not Nessel represented, detained or not.

“Our goal is to represent as many people as we can,” Nessel said, “But [for DDDI] we have just one position.”

According to Nessel, providing a public defense model where every detainee gets representation would cost closer to $15 million. $2.1 million, she said, is a start.

When Anju Gupta proposed an immigration law clinic during her first year teaching at Rutgers, it passed the board unanimously.

“I don’t know if you know anything about law schools, but that’s not always easy,” she joked.

Gupta, a first-generation American, had a natural inclination to immigration rights work. This interest was sharpened by 9/11, which happened during her second year at Yale Law School.

“There was a lot of backlash against immigrants. Certainly before 9/11 as well, but [afterward] we saw legislative issues like the Patriot Act and executive actions like forcing certain immigrants to register. Nationally, socially, and politically, we saw a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric. It just seemed there was more of a need for lawyers and activists in this area.”

After graduation, Gupta taught at multiple immigration law clinics, at Georgetown in Washington, D.C. and Seton Hall Law School, the oldest law clinic at any New Jersey university.

Since launching the Rutgers immigration law clinic in 2012, it has provided full representation for 70 to 80 individuals. With the new project, they will likely hit the 100 mark this year.

At Seton Hall Law School, Nessel has no idea how many people she and her students have helped over time. Nessel has been with the program since 1995, but it predates her by five years as the school’s immigration law clinic started in 1990.

Learning with live clients

Recently, the Seton Hall immigration law clinic won asylum in immigration court for a young Somalian torture survivor, and another fleeing violence in Syria. Some cases involve women fleeing gender-based violence in other countries, including domestic violence, who seek asylum. Some cases involve human trafficking, including labor trafficking.

“We have a number of clients who have fled domestic violence in different parts of Central America where there might not be any laws against domestic violence,” she said. “In those cases, the harm is by their spouse but their country is failing them.”

Outside of New Jersey, Seton Hall Law students spend a week providing pro bono representation at a detention center by the Mexican border, giving students the opportunity for real world immigration law experience without the clinical commitment of 195 hours per semester.

“The amount of learning that takes place is incredible when you have an actual live client with so much at stake,” Nessel said. “It’s a great match, to provide services for clients and train our students at a really deep level.”

Like Seton Hall, Rutgers offers different programs. Students in the clinic handle a few cases to allow them to nail down best practices first, which they can then bring into the courtroom in the future as they take a heavier caseload. In addition to Cirillo, who exclusively handles the detained population, another staff attorney addresses the needs of unaccompanied minors and a third provides consultation and representation to Rutgers’ immigrant student population.

The latter two programs are funded largely by Rutgers’ president and chancellor, and have been since fall of 2016.

“That need was always there but it has become a bigger need since the election since the current national administration took power,” Gupta said.

At Essex County Jail and the Elizabeth Detention Center, Cirillo is still screening for eligible clients. Her current active case load is six; among them, a man ineligible for asylum, seeking expedited deportation back to his home country; a man seeking asylum over his political opinions; and at least one Central American being targeting by gangs.

Cirillo’s case load will likely increase to somewhere between 10 and 20, the vast majority of which are expected to get relief from detention, according to Gupta.

“Many get asylum or some other form of relief that allows them after a certain amount of time to apply for a green card and then apply for citizenship. The majority of our clients are on the path to citizenship after our representation,” Gupta said.

If one does get deported, though—as 86 percent of detainees without representation do—the opportunity to come back might not be available.

“Sometimes when someone is removed it comes with a bar to re-entry for a couple of years. Sometimes they’re able to avoid that bar by paying for their own deportation,” Gupta said. “Even if you’re not subject to a bar, there are a lot of reasons why some might not be able to make their way back to the U.S., and even if they are, they might not have a place to stay. Deportation can be very devastating for individuals and to families.”