NEWARK, NJ – On June 26, 2019, per request by Freeholder President Brendan W. Gill, the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders voted unanimously to approve three resolutions that will provide $750,000 for legal services to the undocumented detainees being held in the Essex County Correctional Facility. 

Freeholder President Gill has been a proponent of providing legal representation to the undocumented detainees in the ECCF for some time. Following the vote, President Gill stated, “This request for funds to provide representation to the detainees came from this Board well before the DHS/OIG Report issued in February of 2019. I am glad to see that the Administration has supported this initiative to provide legal assistance to the undocumented detainees in the ECCF.” 

He continued, "Although $750,000 is a small amount of money in relation to what the County is taking in from the ICE contract, the passing of these resolutions is significant, and hopefully the first step towards universal representation. Going forward, I will continue to call for a responsible wind down of the contract with ICE, and for independent oversight of the Essex County Correctional Facility,”

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Under the terms of the passed resolutions, the $750,000 will be divided evenly between three groups – Rutgers University Law School, Seton Hall University School of Law, and Legal Services of New Jersey – for the period of July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020. These three organizations have long standing commitments to immigration justice and detainees at the Essex County Correctional Facility. They will provide counsel and services to detainees who seek various forms of relief, including securing bond, cancellation of removal, asylum, withholding, and Convention Against Torture Claims. 

The right, and access, to counsel is something that is often taken for granted. However, it is important to note that undocumented detainees in removal or deportation proceedings have no right to a court appointed attorney if they cannot afford one. Immigration detention is considered civil, not criminal, and the due process protections that exist in criminal court, including the right to counsel for indigent defendants, do not apply in civil immigration proceedings. For this reason, the provision of funds to the undocumented detainees has been a long sought-after measure by advocates to their cause.

Lori Nessel, Director of the Center for Social Justice at Seton Hall University School of Law, spoke to the specifics of how the grant money would be used in defense of the detainees. “We have been representing immigrants of all types, detained and not detained, for over 30 years. In addition to our clinical programs and defense of our clients, we are training a new generation of lawyers to go out and do this work.” She continued, “Through the funds allocated to us by the state, we were able to add on a full time attorney that is 100% devoted to being in the detention centers representing immigrants. With the funds being provided by the county, we will be able to add another full-time attorney dedicated to representing immigrants at ECCF, as well as partially fund an additional attorney and paralegal lines to help in this process.”

As part of the grant agreement, Counsel to the detainees shall report aggregate data consisting of the numbers of clients accepted and rejected, the outcomes for clients accepted, and the principal categories of defense. Final decisions as to each case's legal merit will remain the sole responsibility of Counsel for the detainees. Ms. Nessel also spoke of the studies her organization has done in showing the merits of providing counsel to the detainees. “We have done a study on the effect that the services of counsel have on detained immigrants, and the results showed a tangible difference in terms of people’s ability to understand if relief is available, to seek relief, and to ultimately win their cases and come back to their families. Our study, Deportation Without Representation: The Access-To-Justice Crisis Facing New Jersey’s Immigrant Families, found that detained immigrants were three times as likely to prevail in their deportation cases if they had a lawyer.”

Rosa Santana of First Friends of New York and New Jersey, a leading Immigrant Rights Advocate Group in the tristate area, was pleased by the Board’s action in providing funds for the detainees. “We are pleased that a portion of the ICE contract is being allocated for pro bono legal services. We urge Essex County to continue to invest by adding and expanding more services for our detained friends.”