At any given time, 2,000 people are being detained on immigration charges in New Jersey – at a private facility in Elizabeth or three county jails in North Jersey.

They’re not provided with a lawyer, unlike people facing criminal charges. Some can’t afford one and go without. But that’s about to change, as the state budget that was enacted in July includes $2.1 million for legal aid for detainees who otherwise can’t afford representation, which can cost thousands of dollars.

The money hasn’t yet been allocated due to an apparent miscommunication about the application process. But Chia-Chia Wang of the American Friends Service Committee expects it will be given to Legal Services of New Jersey within weeks, now that Gov. Phil Murphy’s office is working on the process.

Wang, the AFSC’s organizing and advocacy director, said the program follows similar efforts in New York City and New York state.

“We are really happy that New Jersey actually started quite big, with $2.1 million, even though it’s still a fraction of what’s needed to provide the services to everybody who is detained,” said Wang, who said a full program would cost $14 million to $15 million.

Wang said the people facing deportation include long-time New Jersey residents with community and family ties who have paid their share in taxes.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates unauthorized immigrants in New Jersey pay $587 million a year in federal, state and local taxes.

“Until the day they become permanent residents for long enough time or become citizens, a lot of time they don’t enjoy the benefits. So we’re not just spending money on people who have not contributed,” Wang said.

A WNYC report last week showed legal-services groups were surprised to learn the funding approved in the budget wasn’t going to be released by the state until an application was submitted outlining the need and plans for the cash.

Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said his group has been in communications with the Murphy administration about the funding.

“We want to make sure that the money is used smartly, so just because it hasn’t been allocated just yet doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s being held up,” Sinha said.

Immigration advocates rallied at the Statehouse last week in support of allowing immigrants not legally in the country to obtain driver’s licenses, an issue Murphy supports which hasn’t yet gotten a legislative hearing this year. And an immigration directive that outlines Murphy’s vision for ‘sanctuary state’ provisions is still being developed by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

Sinha says he’s not worried with the pace of things and that it’s been a good sign that organizations involved in issues like his have been invited to discussions.

“I know how politics works. I know that things move slowly. I know that there is a lot of horse trading and a lot of negotiations happening,” Sinha said.

Johanna Calle, director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, said change isn’t always fast – but that people are watching.

“It seems like they’re moving slowly on a lot of stuff, when I talk to my other fellow advocates on other issues, right? Fight for $15, marijuana, there are a lot of other issues – health care,” Calle said. “All of us are working on the same front, and we’re hoping that they deliver on their promises.”


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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