What New Jersey’s $2M will afford unauthorized immigrants in court

Krishna Roca says she was having problems in Guatemala, so she came to America two years ago on a tourist visa. Through a translator, she described how she was detained and questioned.

“The officers asked her why she traveled so often. Asked her if she was a terrorist or a bad person,” said translator Nicole Miller, legal services director at the American Friends Service Committee.

After hours of questioning, a customs agent asked why Roca had left Guatemala. She replied to escape domestic violence. It’s tougher now to win asylum for domestic violence because the U.S. attorney general has struck it from the list of automatic qualifiers saying “most victims of personal crime don’t fit” the definition of being persecuted.

Advocates say it’s just as tough being an immigrant in America with no right to attorney if it’s unaffordable. A Seton Hall legal clinic discovered 70 percent of immigrants facing deportation in New Jersey have no representation, and only 14 percent have a chance of winning in immigration court.

The Immigrant Rights Program of the American Friends Service Committee screened Roca while she was in detention and decided to represent her. Roca won asylum and is now a legal permanent resident.

“It’s impossible to represent yourself. You’re not a lawyer. You don’t know the laws. You don’t know what’s going on, so you really need a lawyer to really explain to you what your rights are and someone who really understands the law to help you make your case,” Roca said.

That means collecting evidence across international borders and language barriers. It’s pro bono work for many nonprofits, but now New Jersey will help. Gov. Phil Murphy has allocated $2.1 million in the new budget to fund the legal representation of immigrants facing detention or deportation but can’t afford a lawyer.

Immigration lawyers say what New Jersey has budgeted affords immigrants what’s at the heart of the American judicial system: due process.

“In immigration court we have people facing life and death situations, maybe permanent exile from their families and they’re not afforded an attorney even though the stakes are so high. And these people are going up against English-speaking, legally-trained, ICE prosecutors. Even children, or people who may not speak any English or have an legal training, are defending themselves against such grave consequences. If they’re unrepresented, there’s no way that these people are getting due process or a fair day in court,” said Lauren Major, senior detention attorney for American Friends Service Committee.

“Spending money, spending New Jersey taxpayer dollars on folks who came here illegally, that’s a problem. If you want to spend some of that money defending DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], kids who were brought here not of their own volition, you get me on board. I think that that’s not an unreasonable expenditure. But, again, we have to look at every dollar we spend in the context of every commitment we have,” O’Scanlon said.

Roca says she’s doesn’t want to imagine what would have happened if she had gone to court without a lawyer and had to return to Guatemala.

“She says with the problems that she had there, it’s very probably that she wouldn’t be with us anymore. That she would be dead,” Miller said for Roca.

Immigration lawyers call New Jersey’s $2.1 million for immigrant defense a good start.