N.J. legal aid program helped more immigrant detainees get released, report finds

One of two programs like it in the nation, the N.J. effort provides pro bono attorneys to immigrants in detention. More than 50% with a lawyer have been released.

Activists block a street as police officers look on during an immigration protest outside of a detention center, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in Elizabeth, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

Activists block a street as police officers look on during an immigration protest outside of a detention center, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in Elizabeth, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

Backers of a two-year-old New Jersey program that provides free legal aid to people in federal immigration detention say it is working, after the rate of release skyrocketed among detainees who had a pro bono attorney.

A report released on Wednesday found that 52% of immigrants represented by an attorney in the program were released from detention, compared with just 18% of people without representation who were released in New Jersey.

Advocates said the Detention and Deportation Defense Initiative (DDDI) is especially important now, as many ICE detention centers continue to face coronavirus outbreaks.

“Our report finds that DDDI helps detained individuals secure their release, thereby safeguarding public health,” said Liana Katz, a Rutgers University Ph.D. student and a research fellow with Make the Road New Jersey, who prepared the report.

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The state allocated $2.1 million for the program in the 2018 fiscal year and another $3.1 million in the 2019 fiscal year. It is unclear how much funding the program will see in the next budget, which Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers continue to work on as revenues shrink due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is absolutely without question that our commitment to this work remains steadfast,” said Deborah Cornavaca, the governor’s deputy chief of staff. “Now our job is to work together to see that we can continue the funding for the program.”

People do not have a right to government-appointed counsel in immigration court. The program, which Katz said is only the second of its kind in the nation, funds outside attorneys who take on low-income immigrant clients for free.

The report was based on an analysis of 200 cases from 2019 that involved attorneys from the American Friends Service Committee as well as legal clinics at Seton Hall University and

Rutgers University. Legal Services of New Jersey also participates.

In the program’s first year, DDDI attorneys conducted interviews with 1,532 detainees and opened 857 new cases, the report found.

In addition to generally higher rates of release among detainees with DDDI attorneys compared to those without representation, the report found that immigrants in the program were released on bond more often. Sixty percent of detainees with DDDI representation who were eligible for and received bond hearings were released, compared with the national average of 48% of immigrants released on bond.

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North Plainfield resident Fernando Fernandez Dominguez, who has lived in the U.S since 1973 and has four children who are citizens, was detained during an ICE raid in 2017.

Fernandez Dominguez had a private attorney but was not happy with the attorney’s representation. Eventually, Fernandez Dominguez suffered from a rash that covered his whole body and was taken to the hospital, at which point he no longer had the private attorney.

That is when a DDDI lawyer began representing him and helped secure his release from ICE detention.

“I have witnessed about three people who paid a private attorney and they never answered the phone or they did a bad representation,” Fernandez Dominguez said. “Everyone deserves to have a lawyer who can defend their rights and [defend them] against deportation.”

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