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Undocumented Children: The Human Face of New Jersey's Tragic Immigration Crisis

And this has a great impact on how immigrant minors fare in court. Even with the children’s docket, which is in place in about a dozen states nationally, none of the administrative processes -- outside or inside the courtroom -- are child friendly or even non-English-speaker friendly,” Steglich said.

“They are geared toward having an attorney to guide you,” she said.

Wendy Spencer, chief executive officer of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which will administer the Justice AmeriCorps program, said the new program should help provide representation for a vulnerable population.

Providing Critical Support

"Young immigrant children entering the U.S., often under dangerous circumstances, represent some of the most vulnerable individuals who interact with our immigration system," she said June 6. The lawyers and legal aides recruited by the program “will provide critical support for these children, many of whom are escaping abuse, persecution, or violence.“

The Justice AmeriCorps program is a partnership with the U.S. Justice Department and the national Corporation for National and Community Service and will be will be administered through the national AmeriCorps program. It sets aside $2 million for the creation of a federal program to enroll and train about 100 lawyers and paralegals and have them work in 29 of the nation’s busiest immigration courts, including Newark.

According to the CNCS website and interviews with New Jersey attorneys, the lawyers and paralegals will be provided to host organizations in New Jersey that provide representation in the Newark court, which serves the entire state.

The program is seeking organizations willing to host volunteer attorneys and paralegals, who would be provided with a “living allowance” of up to about $24,000 a year and could be eligible for additional funding for education.

"How we treat those in need, particularly young people who must appear in immigration proceedings -- many of whom are fleeing violence, persecution, abuse, or trafficking -- goes to the core of who we are as a nation,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said June 6.

New Jersey immigration advocates say they welcome the help. But they also say the relatively small size of the program is likely to limit its impact – 100 attorneys means no location is likely to have access to more than a handful of additional lawyers.

Non-profits like the American Friends Service Committee, KIND, and the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the Rutgers School of Law in Camden are attempting to address the shortfall, but “funding is always a challenge for nonprofits.”

“Nonprofits have no one to turn to,” Steglich said. “It is a recognition that in order to provide access to qualified and knowledgeable council, we need help. This program can give us a huge helping hand.”

Joanne Gottesman, director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic, agreed.

“Kids have not been legally considered competent (in the U.S. justice system) because they are minors,” she said. That means they are treated differently in court than adults. The same should be the case for undocumented youth, she said.

“For me, it is an issue of fundamental fairness,” she said. “Are we the kind of country where we have children who are facing extreme circumstances and violence in their own country and have them face the consequences of removal without representation?”

Kesselman, however, disagreed. The program will just make it easier for minors to enter and stay in the country, which is contrary to what the American people want.

“This program demonstrates how completely out of control and insane our federal government has become,” she said.

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