Building Justice – Key Stakeholders Look to Address Legal Representation Gaps for Immigrants in New Jersey

On Friday, January 25, 2013, a group of committed individuals gathered at Rutgers School of Law in Newark, New Jersey for a roundtable discussion entitled Building Justice: Increasing Quality Immigration Representation in New Jersey. With an introduction by Dean John J. Farmer, Jr. and an inspiring keynote address by the Honorable Michael A. Chagares of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the stage was set for a productive discussion between the more than 100 participants representing the private bar, law school clinics, legal service providers, academics, government offices, foundations, the New Jersey State Bar, AILA members, and the immigration courts.

New Jersey, home to the nation’s third-largest immigrant population, was the site of nearly 13,000 immigration proceedings in 2011. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) now contracts for approximately 2,350 detention beds in seven jails and jail-like facilities in New Jersey–a nearly 50% increase from 2010–the overwhelming majority of which are filled each day with individuals trying to navigate the complicated immigration system.  About 78% of detained immigrants in Newark are reported to be unrepresented and must try to navigate our complex immigration system without the help of a lawyer.  More statistics and background on the need in New Jersey are available here.

Judge Chagares emphasized the importance of legal representation in the successful outcome of a case and the impact counsel has on increasing efficiency in the courts. And yet, many conference participants noted throughout the day that unlike in criminal proceedings, there is no government funded public defender system for immigration proceedings.  Many participants noted that the stakes in immigration cases are often incredibly high – separation of families, deportation, return to persecution or torture. As Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Jack H. Weil eloquently pointed out –decisions in immigration court often carry Supreme Court-level implications.

In 2012, a little under half of immigrants in immigration court proceedings nationally were unrepresented, and some had only poor quality counsel.  Only four of the seven DHS detention facilities in New Jersey have the Legal Orientation Program (LOP), the federally funded program that supports local NGOs to provide basic legal information and referrals to pro bono resources to immigration detainees, increasing the efficiency and efficacy of immigration proceedings. Several participants pointed out that the many immigration detainees held each year at the 300-bed detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey were in need of an LOP program.

As one local legal provider noted, the overall increase in detention beds in New Jersey was not met with a corresponding increase in funding to legal organizations.  Already overstretched non-profits cannot meet the increased demand at current resource levels. Several participants stressed the importance of pro bono lawyers, expressing appreciation for the representation provided to indigent asylum seekers and immigrants by several New Jersey law firms including Gibbons PC, Lowenstein Sandler LLP, and McCarter & English, LLP.  While participants brainstormed on some steps that could be taken to help address these gaps, many stressed that ultimately a public defender model of government-funded counsel was crucial.  The recent proposal to launch a public defender model project in New York City – which would cover some immigrants detained in New Jersey – was a topic of keen interest. So too were the national discussions concerning comprehensive immigration reform, which many participants hoped would include some provisions aimed at increasing access to legal counsel and legal information.

Despite the challenges, we left Friday’s roundtable with a sense of optimism: in the face of these staggering statistics, New Jersey is home to many dedicated, smart and creative individuals committed to working collaboratively to help the thousands of immigrants who cannot afford legal counsel.

In addition to identifying gaps and obstacles to access to counsel, the discussions also focused on solutions and next steps. Perhaps the most important step was the announcement by Judge Chagares that beginning this week, he will regularly convene a working group of experts on the issue of immigration representation in New Jersey to continue Friday’s conversation, and focus on recommendations for ways to address this legal representation gap. Like the important work of the Study Group on Immigrant Representation which meets in New York City under the leadership of Judge Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the working group led by Judge Chagares will be critical to efforts to engage multiple stakeholders, raise awareness and encourage concrete steps to increase quality immigration representation in New Jersey.

Participants identified a number of recommendations and areas for deeper examination – some of which the newly created Working Group on Immigrant Representation in New Jersey, led by Judge Chagares, may begin to consider at their regular meetings.  These recommendations and ideas included:

  • Expanding the Legal Orientation Program (LOP) in New Jersey and in particular to the 300-bed Elizabeth Detention Center (EDC) where immigration detainees are in urgent need of legal information, as well as legal representation;
  • Creating fellowships at legal providers and law schools, building on existing models and partnering with law firms, foundations, corporations or others;
  • Encouraging additional law firms and lawyers to take on pro bono cases;
  • Exploring the possibility of creating a pro bono legal information/referral mechanism for unrepresented immigrants at the Newark Immigration Court, potentially replicating the Immigration Representation Project (IRP) and Asylum Representation Project (ARP) models at the New York City Immigration Court;
  • Creating more partnerships between legal service providers and law school clinics to overcome barriers of distance and access;
  • Examining the potential to expand the “Madden exemption” to encourage more lawyers to take on  pro bono cases;
  • Increasing accreditation at local community based organizations where there is capacity and support;  and
  • Working with the immigration courts to identify ways to facilitate increased pro bono and non-profit legal representation.

Participants also learned about some of the Department of Justice’s initiatives and suggestions for increasing efficiency and maximizing access to competent counsel for immigrants in immigration court, including a stronger focus on the unauthorized practice of law, providing full interpretation of court hearings for immigrants not fluent in English, and continuing to encourage the access to counsel where screening programs or legal service referrals exist.

With the Working Group on Immigrant Representation in New Jersey convening for the first time this week, the roundtable helped to inform continuing collaborative efforts to address the identified need for increased high-quality immigrant representation in the state.

The Building Justice: Increasing Quality Immigration Representation in New Jersey Roundtable Discussion was co-sponsored by the following organizations, law firms, and law schools: American Friends Service Committee, City Bar Justice Center, Human Rights First, Kids in Need of Defense, Lowenstein Sandler LLP, Rutgers Immigrant Rights Collective, Rutgers School of Law–Camden, Rutgers School of Law–Newark, and Seton Hall Law Center for Social Justice, and was hosted by the Rutgers School of Law – Newark.


Published on January 30, 2013


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