Poor immigrants facing deportation in New Jersey could get access to legal aid under a $2.1 million cash infusion in Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget.
Murphy’s proposed spending, which comes as President Donald Trump oversees a crackdown on immigration, has progressive groups and advocates for legal aid applauding while Republicans question the affordability of higher expenditures.
Murphy’s proposal, outlined in documents supporting his first budget address to the Democrat-led Legislature, falls under the heading “Ensuring Social Justice,” but includes scant details.
“The Governor will support New Jersey residents against Washington attacks by allocating $2.1 million to support non-profit groups providing legal assistance to those facing detention or deportation,” the administration says in its budget-in-brief.
A Treasury spokeswoman says the aid would be administered either through Legal Services of New Jersey, which gives free legal help to poor residents, or other nonprofits. Legal Services did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Republicans question whether prioritizing those in the country illegally makes sense.
“Who do you serve first if you’re making a choice? We have a finite amount of tax dollars. You have to make a choice,” said Republican state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon.
If approved, New Jersey could join other Democrat-led states like New York and California that have focused on providing legal help to poorer immigrants. New York last year announced a public-private partnership aimed at helping immigrants. California pledged $30 million, mostly in legal help, for young immigrants.
“I think it’s a breakthrough the state is putting money into this issue. It’s a welcome start,” said Gordon MacInnes, the president of the liberal-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.
Just how many immigrants the $2.1 million could help is unclear. The spending is a minuscule fraction in the state’s proposed $37.4 billion fiscal 2019 budget, and New Jersey has about 500,000 immigrants who are in the country illegally, according to the Pew Research Center.
The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates three detention centers in the state. Emilio Dabul, an ICE spokesman in New Jersey, says he’s not allowed to release how many are detained at the facilities. Nationally, there are 40,947 detainees, he said.
A February study from the nonprofit, nonpartisan group Human Rights First said that two of the three facilities have a maximum capacity of about 700 people. The third can hold about 300. Olga Byrne, who co-authored the study, said the proposed spending was a step in the right direction, but she speculated the figure wouldn’t be enough to get representation for all who need it.
Dabul said detainees get access to a list of low-cost and pro bono legal assistance as well as a free legal orientation program as well as unlimited access to a law library. Byrne said that she’s spoken to detainees who told her the lists of attorneys often include lawyers who are at capacity or whose phone numbers no longer work.
Detainees have other avenues to legal support, notably from the American Friends Service Committee, which started a pilot program in 2015 in New Jersey aimed at giving detainees “universal representation” at the facility in Elizabeth. The Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders has also given grant money to the committee and Legal Services to help with legal aid, according to the Human Rights First study.
Murphy also campaigned on the promise of setting up an Office of Immigrant Protection, but his budget proposal, at least so far, does not include that. A message left with his office was not immediately returned.