NJ moves to give children legal aid in immigration cases

With $3 million, state becomes second to offer help to unaccompanied minors. Without lawyers, children go through court alone
Credit: (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, Pool)
March 30, 2021: Young unaccompanied migrants, ranging in age from 3 to 9, at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency’s main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas

New Jersey is now on the verge of becoming the second state after California to set aside funds to pay for the statewide legal representation of unaccompanied children in their immigration proceedings.

The $3 million would also be used to provide case management for unaccompanied children, as well as legal representation for other young immigrants who arrived in the United States under similar circumstances and are facing deportation proceedings.

“Most children whom the government is trying to deport from New Jersey are unrepresented,’’ said Emily Chertoff, executive director of the New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children, a statewide coalition of legal providers, healthcare providers and community-based organizations that have pushed for the state funds. “No one should go to immigration court alone, and it is simply inhumane to demand this of children,” she added.

Close to 15,000 unaccompanied children have come to New Jersey since 2014, when an influx of youngsters, mostly from Central America, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, some fleeing violence. Since the start of the federal government’s fiscal year in October through April of this year, 1,470 of those children have been released to a parent or relative in the Garden State, according to figures from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. New Jersey is fifth among states, following Texas, Florida, California and New York in the number of unaccompanied children it has received this fiscal year. Lawmakers voted Thursday on a budget that included the $3 million.

Immigrant advocates who provide legal representation to unaccompanied minors in the state said the funds would go a long way to meeting the needs of children in removal proceedings.

California has included money in its budget to fund legal services specifically for unaccompanied minors for a few years. Other states have pilot programs that pay for attorneys for such children, but those are not as expansive as what the New Jersey program will be, Chertoff said.

“There is a little bit of funding that some states have set aside for that purpose, but the thing that distinguishes this funding is that it’s a statewide program, so it’s going to be sub-granted out to several providers that work statewide,’’ she said. “In terms of children it will cover, it will be the most expansive of any of the states.”

Unprotected and undefended

“Many unaccompanied children are fleeing pervasive violence, have been abandoned or lost their caretakers. Without attorneys to represent them in their deportation proceedings, children risk being sent back to places where they face grave harm and have no one to protect them,’’ said Gilda Holguin, acting managing attorney of the Newark office of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a national organization that represents unaccompanied children at their immigration proceedings. KIND will receive some of the funding.

Children who enter the country alone are given certain protections under U.S. immigration law but are not provided an attorney because immigration courts are classified as civil, not criminal.

Most minors go through immigration legal proceedings without an attorney, and often are issued orders of deportation. Previous research by TRAC, a nonpartisan center at Syracuse University, has shown that unaccompanied minor children with legal representation have higher odds of success in their immigration cases.

The state funds can also be used to enable legal providers to represent children coming to New Jersey from the Remain in Mexico program, also known as the Migration Protection Protocols. The 2018 policy, started by the Trump administration, allowed for those who arrived at the southern border who claimed asylum to be given immigration court notices and then returned to Mexico.

In February, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began processing some of the people who were returned to Mexico, allowing them entry into the United States. And earlier this month, the Biden administration announced an end to the program.

About 280 families have arrived in New Jersey from the program as of May, according to TRAC.

Help comes too late

Dario Alvarado, 18, of Dover is among the unaccompanied children who arrived in New Jersey in 2019. Dario, who was born in Honduras, said he has an immigration court appearance scheduled in the summer, but does not think he would benefit from the funds because they might not be available by the time he has to appear in court. He said he is currently looking for an attorney without much success, because he’s unable to pay the cost of hiring one.

“I’m happy to know others might get help,’’ he said in Spanish.

Assemblyman Harold Wirths, a Sussex County Republican, said he didn’t know that there was money earmarked for unaccompanied minor children in the budget, but was against using state funds in that way.

“I’m opposed to it, and I voted no on the budget, and I would not support the $3 million if I had a way of stopping it, I would,” he said. “The whole immigration issue is a federal issue. New Jersey taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for it.”

While lawmakers voted on the $46.4 billion budget Thursday, dozens protested outside the State House against what they termed an “opaque budget process.” They also criticized lawmakers for not allocating dedicated funding for NJ Transit, energy efficiency programs and failing to set aside funds for immigrant workers who haven’t been eligible for most forms of COVID-19 relief.

“We cannot continue to be essential and excluded,’’ said Carla Cortes, an essential immigrant worker and a member of Make the Road New Jersey. “Essential immigrant workers, like me, risked our lives to keep our state open throughout the pandemic and this budget process failed to address racial and economic inequalities.”

On Thursday, the Senate also passed a bill that would bar state, county and local governments — as well as private companies — from signing new agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to hold its federal immigrant detainees. It would also prohibit the renewing or expansion of existing contracts with ICE to hold its detainees.

The bill will now go to Gov. Phil Murphy, but on Thursday, his office declined to comment.

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