We all know the drill from prime-time TV: People arrested for crimes have the right to remain silent, and also to legal counsel, and “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” But in immigration court, the right to legal defense simply doesn’t exist, because such cases fall under civil, not criminal law. So, for the tens of thousands of people caught up in deportation proceedings every year, their right to remain in the country is on trial, and they face the punishment of losing their families and homes in the United States, and being sent to countries where their lives may be endangered. Yet they are often on their own in court.
New Jersey is one of a handful of states trying to buck that trend: In July, Governor Phil Murphy’s administration launched a promising pilot program to provide immigrants with free legal counsel in selected cities, with about $2 million earmarked for legal services in the state budget. The rollout of the program now seems uncertain, however; the actual disbursement of the funds so far has reportedly been botched by confusion over the allocation procedures for lawyers, and advocates across the state are still waiting.
According to an economic analysis on New Jersey’s immigrants, the consequences of this delay are not only hurting the immigrants themselves but also damaging the state’s economy. According to the report by New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), the state and its workforce loses some $18 million in wages and $1.6 million in tax revenue each year because of immigrant workers’ being detained and unable to show up for work. Individual businesses in New Jersey would take a direct hit, losing potentially “$5.9 million in turnover-related costs annually as they are forced to replace detained or deported employees.” Hypothetically, as New Jersey has the third-largest immigrant population in the nation and one of the largest undocumented shares of the workforce (about 7.4 percent), the cost to the state’s GDP from the loss of all its undocumented immigrants would be the highest in the country, nearly 5 percent—more than would be lost by even California and New York, according to state fiscal data (though deporting them all would be logistically impossible).
The cost of providing free legal aid to immigrants, therefore, is far outweighed by the benefits of helping them stay out of detention and avoid deportation, and research has clearly demonstrated that a lawyer can mean the difference between separating a family forever and finding a permanent legal solution, or winning legal reprieve or humanitarian protection for refugees.
A New York–based study on immigrant legal representation found that for people in detention, just three percent without lawyers prevailed in court. The success rate for people with representation, even if they remained detained, was six times higher, and a stunning 74 percent for immigrants who were represented by lawyers and were not detained.