4-10-2012By Annie Sovcik and Lori Adams
Refugee Protection Program
On March 23rd the Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, NJ hosted the conference, “Immigrant Detainees: Alone, Unrepresented & Imprisoned,” in partnership with other area law schools, NGOs and the law firms of Lowenstein Sandler PC and Gibbons PC. This full-day conference focused on problems in the U.S. immigration detention system, including inappropriate jail-like conditions, inadequate use of alternatives to detention, the impact of mandatory detention laws that prevent decisions to detain from being made on a case-by-case basis, and challenges immigration detainees face accessing legal counsel.
The day closed with a powerful speech by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who declared that “immigration issues are the civil rights issues of our day.” He promised to “continue to push [the Department of Homeland Security] time and time again, to improve conditions at detention facilities” and “to reform the process: to bring fairness, decency and dignity.”
In addition to evaluating nationwide problems in this deeply flawed system, the Rutgers conference revealed some of the specific challenges immigration detainees face in Essex County, NJ and other parts of the state, particularly related to the dire need for quality legal counsel. The event coincided with the release of a report, “Immigration Incarceration: The Expansion and Failed Reform of Immigration Detention in Essex County, NJ,” by New York University School of Law’s immigrant-rights clinic, in cooperation with the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees. According to the report, “[e]very indicator of the conditions and treatment of immigrant detainees in Essex County shows a detention system that is failing to meet the bare minimum of humane treatment and due process.”
In focusing on the challenges immigration detainees face in New Jersey, the law schools, NGOs and law firms called for more attorneys in the New Jersey and New York area to provide pro bono legal services for immigrants in detention. In December 2011, a report published in the Cardozo Law Review highlighted the crisis in legal representation for immigrants in New York, a crisis which adversely impacts immigrants across the country. The Study Group on Immigrant Representation, led by the Honorable Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, conducted the research that formed the basis for this report. The report makes clear that the two most important factors in whether an immigrant has a successful outcome in his or her case are (1) whether the person is represented by a lawyer, and (2) whether the person is detained.
Judge Katzmann discussed these findings during his remarks at the Rutgers conference and said “this is where you come in” to the attorneys in the room, encouraging them to provide pro bono legal representation for immigrants detained in New Jersey. The Honorable Michael A. Chagares of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit spoke on the next panel and issued a “call to action” to the law firms in New Jersey, encouraging them to take on the pro bono representation of immigrants in the state. As he said, attorneys have the ability to “profoundly impact someone’s life, potentially saving an entire family” and for this reason pro bono work can be “downright heroic.”
Human Rights First runs an asylum legal representation program which partners with law firms in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC to provide pro bono legal assistance to refugees seeking protection in the United States. In partnership with other NGOs, we conduct “know your rights” presentations at detention centers in New Jersey through which we provide referrals to pro bono counsel for hundreds of detained immigrants and asylum seekers each year.
Through this work, we see first-hand how the need outweighs the availability of legal resources for indigent immigrants and asylum seekers, especially those in detention. In late 2011, with the encouragement of the Katzmann Study Group and funding from the Leon Levy Foundation, Human Rights First created a two-year fellowship to increase our capacity to provide pro bono legal representation for non-detained asylum-seekers in New York City.
Much more needs to be done. We hope that the Rutgers conference will lead to improvements in the immigration detention system as well as an expansion of pro bono representation for asylum-seekers and others who are detained in New Jersey. Human Rights First hopes to see the efforts of the Katzmann Study Group replicated elsewhere, including in New Jersey, and continues to push for the nationwide expansion of the Legal Orientation Program (LOP), a program through the U.S. Department of Justice that offers basic information to those held in immigration detention, providing them with a better understanding of their legal options and increasing their likelihood of obtaining pro bono counsel.
Click here to learn more about immigration detention in the United States and to read Human Rights First recent report, “Jails and Jumpsuits: Transforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System – A Two-Year Review.”