During its first year of existence, a New Jersey-funded legal representation program for detained immigrants opened more than 850 cases and managed to free from detention more than half of the immigrants represented by the program's attorneys.

But as the COVID-19 health crisis plays out, and the Garden State looks for ways to tighten its financial belt, advocates for immigrants are not certain how much public funding this program may receive going forward.

According to a report released Wednesday by a coalition of organizations, and authored by a Rutgers PhD student, New Jersey's Detention and Deportation Defense Initiative offered an impactful intervention for those facing deportation, and their families, between November 2018 and October 2019.

"Fifty-two percent of immigrants represented by a DDDI attorney won their release from detention," said author Liana Katz. "Only 17.6% of immigrants without representation were released from detention in New Jersey in the 2019 fiscal year."

In the program's first year, DDDI attorney conducted interviews with 1,532 detainees and opened 857 new cases, according to the report, which analyzed hundreds of cases opened and closed by three out of four state-funded legal services providers.

"Having a lawyer not only helps our clients win their cases, but also ensures that clients aren't pushed through a system that is so unfairly stacked against them," said Iman Saad, a DDDI attorney. "Every immigrant deserves an attorney to advocate for their cases and ensure they are treated with dignity and respect in this broken system."

The report cited the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse Immigration Database, which found that in 2019, over 40% of individuals in New Jersey who were detained and facing deportation did not have representation in court and had to fight their case alone.

The DDDI was approved by Gov. Phil Murphy in late 2018 at a $2.1 million investment. It's since grown into a $3.1 million program; that funding will run out at the end of October 2020.

According to Lauren Major, with American Friends Service Committee, the program would require approximately $15 million in funding in order to provide legal representation to every person in New Jersey who is detained and facing a deportation proceeding.

"The funding amount for the coming year is not yet certain," Major said.

The report argues DDDI attorneys have become "essential responders" recently due to the spread of COVID-19 in detention centers.

"All of New Jersey's detention centers have experienced serious outbreaks," the report states. "At a time when immigration detention has become increasingly dangerous for detained immigrants the DDDI offers a lifeline."

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.