TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget plan repeats the funding provided in his first year for lawyers who help unauthorized immigrants fight deportation, but it doesn’t increase it seven-fold as a coalition of more than 30 groups had urged.

The $2.1 million appropriation is split between four legal-services providers. Advocates for the program say it needs to be increased to $15 million to cover all of the more than 2,000 low-income detainees in the state. A few made their case to lawmakers at public hearings on the fiscal 2020 budget plan.

“While we are very grateful of that really great first step to expand representation to immigrants in New Jersey, the reality is that in this climate, the $2.1 million is simply just not enough to meet the needs and demands for representation, especially under the Trump administration and its attacks on immigrants,” said Laura Rodriguez, a senior detention attorney for the American Friends Service Committee.

The proposed budget includes a $1 million increase for Legal Services of New Jersey, the organization through which the initial $2.1 million was distributed, and it’s conceivable some of that money could be spent assisting unauthorized immigrants.

The immigrant-representation program is provided by Legal Services of New Jersey, the American Friends Service Committee and the Rutgers University and Seton Hall University law schools.

Pina Cirillo, a staff attorney at the Rutgers Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic, said more funding is needed because there isn’t a right to appointed counsel in deportation proceedings, like there is in criminal court.

“Often described as death sentence penalties at a traffic court pace, immigration court doesn’t extend the same due process rights to immigrants that are detained and deprived of their liberty,” said Cirillo, who called the state funding a “much-needed step towards building a due-process army to defend the rights of our state’s immigrant population.”

A 2016 report by Seton Hall Law School found that 14 percent of detainees who didn’t have lawyers avoided deportation, while those with attorneys were granted asylum in nearly half of cases. In 2015, roughly two-thirds of detained immigrants didn’t have lawyers.

Among those helped in avoiding deportation last year was Dover resident Ana Del Valle, who was originally from Colombia and has lived in the United States for 20 years. She was held at the Elizabeth Detention Center for four months and for the first two didn’t have an attorney because she couldn’t afford one.

“It’s an incredibly traumatic experience to be in that situation and not have the resources or support to be able to get the representation that you need,” Del Valle said.

Del Valle’s status is now back where it was before her detention – not legally in the country and unable to afford the assistance of a lawyer who could help her pursue legal status.

“Unfortunately, right now, the first step that we’re doing is funding detained immigrants,” Rodriguez said, “but there’s also a massive need for representation for non-detained clients as well.”

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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

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