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NJ Stands with Children, Protests Splitting Up Immigrant Families at Border

Murphy signs EO to stop state funds from being used for forced separations, commits $2.1 million to legal help for indigent immigrants

Menendez immigrants
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) speaks against the Trump administration policy of forcibly splitting up families of undocumented immigrants at the country's border.

Outrage is growing over the separation of children from their families by federal immigration officials as they cross the U.S.-Mexican border, leading New Jersey to protest the practice and advocates to ask New Jersey to provide representation for those detained here and facing deportation.

The practice of splitting up families began two months ago after an order by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who says it is meant to serve as a deterrent against illegal border crossings. The Department of Homeland Security has reported that some 2,300 children have been separated from their parents since early May and border crossings have actually increased by 5 percent.

To make clear New Jersey’s opposition to this practice, state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal signed a letter with 20 colleagues from across the country demanding an end to these forced separations. Both U.S. Senators from New Jersey — Bob Menendez and Cory Booker — spoke on the floor of the upper chamber against the actions, and Menendez called for the enactment of the federal Keep Families Together Act. And Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order preventing any state resources from being used to facilitate family separations.

Murphy v. Trump, et al

“Ever since our founding — and even before — our nation has been a beacon for families seeking freedom and yearning for a better life. President Trump has turned this promise on its head by doubling down on his inhumane and cruel policy of separating families,” Murphy said in a statement yesterday on signing the order. He called the policy “an affront to our values as New Jerseyans and as Americans,” adding, “It has no basis in law or scripture, no matter how many times the president, the vice president, or anyone who tries to defend this policy tries to spin it. This is a matter of human rights, human dignity, and basic humanity.”

Murphy has been a vocal proponent of immigrants’ rights. One of his campaign promises was to make New Jersey a sanctuary state, and shortly after taking office he announced the creation of an office to help the undocumented. In his budget proposal, Murphy allocated $2.1 million to help indigent immigrants get legal representation.

Several advocates yesterday applauded his EO and called for even more support for immigrants being detained in the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility and the Essex and Hudson County jails. New Jersey Policy Perspective released a report that found those detained for civil immigration violations are three times more likely to win their cases and twice as likely to be released before the end of their proceedings when they have legal representation.

“While children are being ripped from their families at the border, New Jersey can serve as a model for the nation by funding universal representation,” said Erika Nava, policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective and author of the report. “Providing legal services for immigrants has positive impacts in the communities where immigrants reside, as deportations not only hurt the individuals, but also their families and local economies. Creating a universal representation program that expands access to counsel for detained immigrants will not only bolster New Jersey’s immigrant families, but the broader state economy.”

Sara Cullinane, director of the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey, called Murphy’s proposal “a critical first step” but said it will help only “a fraction of those in need of representation.” She said it would cost at least $14 million a year to provide legal help to all those indigent immigrants who need it.

Trial without legal counsel

There is no guaranteed right to legal representation in the immigration court system, which means those facing possible deportation because they are undocumented or for some other reason only get a lawyer when they can afford it. And the nation’s immigration laws are notoriously complicated, meaning most of those who try to represent themselves wind up losing.

“It’s a very complex area of law, certainly impossible to navigate without a lawyer,” said Lori A. Nessel, law professor and director of the Seton Hall Law School Center for Social Justice. “Basic fairness demands that all detained immigrants should have a lawyer by their side, particularly given that family separation is often at stake. Providing access to counsel dramatically increases detained immigrants’ ability to successfully seek relief from deportation and to rejoin their families and contribute to the economy."

Nessel said results from across the Hudson River show a 1,000 percent increase in success in deportation challenges since the start of New York City’s Immigrant Family Unity Project several years ago. Funded by the city, the project provides free legal representation to indigent New York immigrants facing deportation.

Cullinane said it’s especially important to make legal assistance available now, as arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New Jersey have risen by 42 percent over the past year, far faster than in the nation as a whole.

“Our country is facing a moral crisis now. They are literally ripping children from their families at the border,” Cullinane said, adding that providing representation to parents detained in Elizabeth could help reunite them with children living in New Jersey or being held with other children at the border.

While most people held in New Jersey for ICE were picked up here, there are some immigrants who were transferred to the Elizabeth facility from the Mexican border. Nicole Miller, legal services director at American Friends Service Committee, said ICE will transfer people to facilities where they have open beds, which can mean an immigrant is separated by miles from family members. She said some 2,600 immigrants were processed through the Elizabeth center last year.

AFSC has a small representation program that has allowed it to help more than 700 indigent immigrants and achieve great success: 77 percent of immigrants represented in 2016 and 85 percent of those last year were able to defeat deportation efforts. As an example of one of the committee’s successful cases, Miller said an undocumented man from Guatemala who had spent 17 years in New Jersey before being picked up by ICE not only beat deportation, but he now has legal status via a provision in immigration law allowing for cases of extreme hardship when a family member is ill — the man’s daughter has a serious heart ailment.

“That’s just the value of having competent and consistent representation,” Miller said. And while the committee’s program has been very effective, “It’s not coming close to meeting the needs in New Jersey.”

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