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Due Process for All

Mahamadi speaking at community forum on universal representation in Newark, NJ. Photo: Nicole Miller / AFSC

 AFSC and Partners Launch ‘Due Process for All’ 

The State of New Jersey recently established a universal representation pilot program, which offers appointed counsel to detained immigrants facing possible deportation and aims to reduce the number of immigrants who have been forced to fight alone. 

“Families who came to New Jersey for a better life do not deserve to be torn apart by the federal government’s cruel and discriminatory policies,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement announcing the initiative in November. “Deportation is one of the harshest consequences an individual can face under U.S. law, yet most immigrants do not have the right to appointed counsel and many cannot afford an attorney.”

New Jersey now joins New York and California in expanding due process for immigrants by providing taxpayer-funded legal aid with the $2.1million grant. The funding has been distributed to four providers, Legal Services of New Jersey, American Friends Service Committee, Rutgers Law School and Seton Hall Law School, that will offer pro-bono legal representation to detainees at the Elizabeth Detention Center and Essex County Jail who do not already have an attorney and meet the low-income eligibility requirement. 

AFSC Begins Work 

American Friends Service Committee and other immigrant rights organization kicked off the first year implementation of the new state-funded universal representation program with a community forum in Newark, which was attended by 50 immigrant community members and immigrant rights advocates. 

In preparing for the implementation of this program, AFSC is in the process of hiring and its team is expected to be up and running shortly to meet the community’s demand effectively. Additionally, Legal Services of New Jersey’s team of attorneys and legal assistants has begun to take cases through this pilot, while Rutgers and Seton Hall Law have each hired an additional lawyer to focus solely on representing detained immigrants in New Jersey.

Although this is an exciting first start, it is important to recognize that a fully-funded program that will provide representation to every person detained that can not afford a lawyer is imperative, especially as the federal government escalates immigration enforcement nationwide. Thus, AFSC and its community partners are calling on the State of New Jersey to significantly increase funding in FY2020 for the universal representation program. 

Mahamadi’s Story

Mahamdi Oedraogo fled Burkina Faso in December 2015 to seek asylum in the United States. Upon arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport, he was detained and spent a year and three days at the Elizabeth Detention Center.

At the community forum, Oedraogo, a former client of AFSC, stressed the importance of having access to high-quality, pro-bono legal representation for immigrants that are in detention at the forum. 

“I was very confused because I did not know anything about immigration law and did not know anyone to help me for my case,” said Oedraogo. “Without legal representation, it is incredibly hard to defend yourself or to know about immigration law. Everyone in the same situation deserves a good lawyer.” 

Oedraogo is one of few detained immigrants who was able to find counsel just in time, as 67 percent of immigrants in danger of deportation face immigration court alone and thus, are three times more likely to lose their case compared to those who have representation, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective. This pilot program is a start in advancing access to representation and reducing the number of immigrants who have been forced to fight their case alone. 

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