No One Detained in New Jersey should Face Deportation Alone

By Rev. Rob Gregson

Every major religious tradition practiced in our state urges the special protection and prioritization of those who exist on the margins within the dominant community. Throughout the Jewish Bible and Christian Gospels, as well as within the humanist tradition, this idea is developed richly in multiple places: it is the duty of those in a more privileged place to “welcome the stranger.”

It is a principle embodied in copper and steel in our own Liberty State Park, and one which we have long struggled to make real since we placed the Constitution and its ideals above individual rulers or parties, however well intentioned they may be.

We are at a crucial moment in that same historical struggle, a moment where we risk losing any communal sense of a cultural or political commitment to care for those who have arrived on our shores–or turn them, oh so conveniently, into “not one of us.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the increasing hostility, expressed rhetorically and through law and policy, towards immigrant communities.

I am heartened to see, however, a home grown campaign often led by the very people most threatened by our current political environment. A coalition of human rights, immigrant and faith groups, we are committed to the prevention of our state’s capitulation to the same forces of greed, subjugation and simple meanness that appear to be flourishing elsewhere. We are lucky, in New Jersey, to have elected leaders who are listening to the full range of our community’s voices and who are passing groundbreaking legislation to create spaces of refuge and legal protection within a brutal national context.

One of the most important examples of this leadership was the decision by Governor Murphy and the
state legislature last year to allocate $2.1 million for the creation of a legal defense fund to provide lawyers to people fighting deportation while in immigration detention. Deportation is one of the harshest penalties an individual can face under U.S. law.

It can mean permanent exile from family and loved ones, loss of livelihood, and in some cases a return to a place where a person risks persecution or death. However, unlike people facing criminal charges and incarceration, people facing deportation do not have a right to appointed counsel, meaning that those who cannot afford a lawyer must defend their cases alone. We know that many people who have strong legal claims to remain in the country end up being deported, because studies have shown that rates of success in immigration court increase exponentially when a person has legal representation. This situation is unconscionable.

New Jersey has also become a particular target for immigration enforcement under the Trump administration. In 2017, immigration arrests in our state increased by 42 percent and average population in New Jersey detention centers rose by 34 percent to 1,807 individuals a day. The estimated cost of providing free high quality legal representation to every one of those people is approximately
$15 million. That is not only a tiny fraction of our annual state budget, it is also an incredibly small price to pay to provide our community members basic due process of law, to redress a deep moral failing of our justice system, and to keep New Jersey families together where they belong. We should all call upon the Governor and legislature to fully fund deportation defense for immigrants in New Jersey. In so doing, we can echo Lady Liberty’s timeless, message and disavow the shrill words of the
latest political opportunist: immigrants are not–have never been–strangers to these shores.

By Rev. Rob Gregson, Executive Director, Unitarian Universalist FaithAction NJ

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