Leading New Jersey advocates called with even greater urgency for universal representation of immigrants in detention following the Department of Justice’s announced suspension of a vital legal information program. New Jersey has to lead the way in upholding the American ideals of fairness and due process, advocates said.

Building on Governor Murphy’s first step of proposing public funding for immigration counsel, the New Jersey Legislature should fully fund a program to provide universal representation for detained low-income men and women in deportation proceedings.

“The Legal Orientation Program is one of the only government-funded programs that helps unrepresented people in civil detention navigate the complexities of immigration law, and the suspension of this program further erodes due process for thousands of men and women in New Jersey who are fighting deportation and seeking protection from persecution and torture abroad,” said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Farrin Anello. “New Jersey should respond by ensuring that no one detained during their deportation proceedings in our state is forced to try to defend their rights without a lawyer standing beside them.”

A group of organizations – including the ACLU-NJ, American Friends Service Committee, Make the Road New Jersey, New Jersey Policy Perspective, and Seton Hall Law School's Center for Social Justice – emphasized the dire urgency of representation now that the federal government plans to shut down the Legal Orientation Program and to impose arbitrary, unworkable case-completion quotas on immigration judges.

“Now more than ever, states must prioritize funding for a universal representation project that provides free, public defender-style legal representation for immigrants facing detention and deportation, especially given the increase in immigration enforcement,” said Chia-Chia Wang, AFSC’s Director of Organizing and Advocacy. 

Despite the grave consequences of detention and deportation, the government guarantees no right to counsel for people facing such consequences.

“At a moment when immigrants are in dire need of representation and legal advice, the Administration’s decision to suspend the Legal Orientation and Help Desk Program further undermines the notions of basic dignity and fairness that are essential to due process and rule of law,” said Lori Nessel, Director of the Center for Social Justice at the Seton Hall University School of Law. “Long-standing members of our nation already face the prospect of deportation and family separation without access to legal representation.  This latest directive now seeks to remove access to basic information about our legal system.  We are grateful to Governor Murphy for allocating initial funds towards ensuring that noncitizens in New Jersey do not face deportation without representation.”

Organizations have called on New Jersey to devote funding to the essential service of ensuring due process in immigration proceedings, and today, they issued a call for even greater funding than promised. The vacuum left by the Legal Orientation Program’s absence and new quotas introduced in early April have worsened a due process crisis.

"Sessions’ cruel decision to end the Legal Orientation and Help Desk program – a lifeline for detained immigrants who more often than not face deportation without the aid of legal counsel – is a slap in the face of due process and human dignity. In New Jersey, thousands of detained immigrants will be deprived of basic information about their rights just as immigration enforcement in our state – and nationally – escalates. Governor Murphy’s initial budget proposal of $2.1 million in funding to provide direct representation to detained immigrants facing deportation is now more crucial than ever. Our state must avert this crisis in due process and prevent families from being separated by creating universal representation for all detained immigrants in New Jersey,” said Sara Cullinane, Director of Make the Road New Jersey.

Governor Murphy allocated funds in the budget for representation of immigrants unable to afford attorneys, following advocacy from dozens of organizations, faith leaders, and immigration judges urging a universal representation program for immigration cases.

“The Trump Administration’s latest actions intensify the crisis built on fictional ‘due process’ that has been mounting for years in New Jersey’s immigration courts, and it highlights the urgent need for a statewide system of appointed counsel,” said Gordon MacInnes, President of New Jersey Policy Perspective.

The Legal Orientation Program provides legal information to 53,000 individuals across the country.

“AFSC has been representing immigrant detainees for over 20 years in New Jersey and we have seen firsthand the significant impact that legal representation has on a detainee’s ability to present their case to an immigration judge. It also ensures that detainees are treated with dignity and respect as they navigate a dehumanizing immigration system that tears families and communities apart,” said Lauren Major, AFSC’s Senior Detention Attorney.  

Whereas the state provides counsel for defendants in criminal court, poor people in immigration court are routinely forced to appear without legal representation. Approximately two-thirds of the men and women detained for deportation proceedings in New Jersey are unrepresented. Meanwhile, the federal immigration enforcement agency prosecuting their cases is always represented by counsel.   

“New Jersey can no longer allow the Trump Administration to rip our families apart without the most basic of constitutional safeguards: a lawyer to stand beside them in court,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “The New Jersey Legislature must create a program of universal representation for low-income people detained during immigration court proceedings.”

Immigration judges have aptly described deportation proceedings as trying “death penalty cases in traffic court.” Deportation results in parents’ separation from their U.S. citizen children, often leaving those children to rely on New Jersey’s social service system for support and in some cases, consigning them to foster care. Deportation means ripping valued employees and business owners from our communities, and decreasing state tax revenue. And for those who face persecution or torture abroad, deportation can literally be a death sentence.  

Without legal representation, many meritorious claims for asylum or other protections never come to a judge’s attention, and avoiding mistakes becomes impossible. Immigrants without legal representation are three times as likely to lose their cases as those who have counsel, according to a study by Seton Hall University School of Law.

The federal government has targeted New Jersey residents with an exceptionally aggressive program of detentions and deportations. In fiscal year 2017, immigration arrests in the Garden State rose by 42 percent, one of the greatest increases in the nation, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data. 

New York State and cities around the country have shown that state and local governments can take important steps to confront due process violation, and have demonstrated that universal representation comes with long-term benefits to the state. A recent evaluation of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Program, the first universal representation program for detained immigrants, found an 1100 percent increase in success rates. As a result, the program kept families together, which will result in long-term cost savings to the state, and raised a projected $2.7 million per year in tax revenues for each cohort of families in the program.