Op-Ed: New Jersey Immigrants Lack Adequate Legal Representation

The promulgation of executive orders specifically targeting immigrants has left thousands of residents in New Jersey vulnerable to arrest, detention, and deportation

Alexandra M. Goncalves-Pena
Immigrants are facing a crisis in New Jersey. Without state and local government intervention, the crisis will only get worse.

New Jersey is home to one of the highest populations of foreign-born residents in the United States, with immigrants making up more than 20 percent of the population. New Jersey immigrants have made innumerable contributions to the state’s economy, culture, and society. According to a 2016 report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants contributed more than $590 million in state and local taxes.

New Jersey is also home to one of the highest immigration-court backlogs in the nation, with nearly 28,000 cases pending as of August 2016. Given the complexity of our nation’s immigration laws and the many hurdles immigrants encounter in comprehending the complex legal process, the involvement of an attorney is pivotal.

Although New Jersey is fortunate to have an experienced private immigration bar, most of the state’s immigrants are unable to afford their services. This is particularly true when immigrants are detained and unable to earn any income. Because immigration proceedings are considered civil in nature, they have no right to an attorney if they cannot afford one. As a result, most immigrants in New Jersey are left facing deportation without a lawyer.

Swamped by demand

Thousands of immigrants seek help at the few free or low-cost legal service providers in the state. But existing legal service organizations do not have the capacity to meet the existing need. For years, these organizations have been overburdened and severely underfunded. As an attorney at one of these agencies, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), my caseload has always been high. The same is true for my colleagues, some of whom have caseloads numbering in the hundreds. The unfortunate reality is that numerous individuals who need legal services are turned away on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, this crisis is nothing new. According to a 2016 report, immigrants with legal representation were at least three times as likely to obtain a successful outcome in their case compared with those where were unrepresented. This finding, and the results of similar studies, show that far too often families are torn apart only because they cannot afford a lawyer to help them understand their constitutional and legal rights.

Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, there has been a dramatic shift in U.S. immigration policies. The promulgation of executive orders specifically targeting immigrants has left thousands of residents in New Jersey vulnerable to arrest, detention, and deportation. In the first months of the Trump administration, there has been a roughly 32 percent increase in ICE arrests since 2016. Many of these individuals will not be released from ICE custody once they are arrested, as a direct result of immigration laws that call for the continued and mandatory detention of immigrants, including asylum seekers and certain lawful permanent residents. There is little doubt that these policies will have increasingly negative effects on both immigrant and nonimmigrant communities.

In the weeks following Trump’s inauguration, requests for information and legal representation increased dramatically, with hundreds of calls coming in on a weekly basis. Responding to these requests, along with requests for Know Your Rights trainings, has further taxed already overworked attorneys.

Increasing available funds

In response to the Trump administration’s promise to deport two to three million immigrants, many cities and states have enacted policies to protect their immigrant residents. Some have gone further and urged elected leaders to designate funding in their budgets to support immigration legal services. In direct response to anti-immigrant policies, cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York have increased legal funds or created new funds for immigrant representation, and other places are considering the creation of such funds on a local and state level. New Jersey can and must do more to make legal assistance available to in-need immigrants in these challenging times.

It is essential that New Jersey and its municipalities begin earnest and real efforts toward supporting access to legal services for low-income immigrants, and securing short- and long-term funding for the agencies providing these services. Now is the time for our state’s and city’s elected officials to stand up for their communities and immigrant constituents by investing in the necessary financial resources to provide legal representation.

The AFSC and other community-based organizations can only meet these needs if local and state political leadership stands together to increase their support of New Jersey’s vulnerable populations. Without the economic resources to provide access to legal counsel, we are leaving those who are most in need of protection at the greatest risk of having their rights violated and their lives destroyed. New Jersey must deepen its commitment to protecting the immigrant communities who enrich our state and are at the heart of its social, cultural, and economic vibrancy.