TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey set aside $2.1 million to help immigrants facing deportation in the state, money that advocates say will go a long way in helping but still falls short of the estimated cost of legal representation.
Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and the Democrat-controlled Legislature signed off on the new spending this month as part of a recently adopted $37.4 billion fiscal year 2019 budget just as the federal government fell short of a deadline to reunite families separated under a federal zero-tolerance immigration policy.
Murphy included the money in the budget as part of his larger goal of pushing back against Republican President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration, and the new spending survived contentious budget negotiations among Democratic leaders.
Treasury and the Office of the Attorney General are still working on how the money will be handed out, and none has been disbursed yet, according to the Treasury.
Chia-Chia Wang, the director of organizing and advocacy at the American Friends Service Committee, an immigrant rights group that provides legal help, said the organization would work with state government to figure out how the new money would be disbursed.
She cast the incarceration of immigrants accused of illegally coming into the country in moral terms and said by and large they come here looking for economic opportunity, to escape violence in their home countries or both.
“Incarceration is not something we want to expand. It’s not something to be proud of,” she said.
It’s unclear how many people the funding will help, but it’s roughly 14 percent of the total cost for legal representation, according to the Friends Service Committee.
The group estimates the annual cost of legal representation for immigrants in the state’s detention centers is about $15 million. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds immigrants at county jails in Bergen, Essex and Hudson, as well as a detention facility in Elizabeth.
Emilio Dabul, an ICE spokesman in New Jersey, said this year that he cannot release how many are detained at the facilities. Wang estimates the figure is roughly 1,500 in New Jersey. The Pew Research Center estimates that New Jersey has about 500,000 immigrants who are in the country illegally.
New Jersey joins other Democrat-led states like New York and California that offer legal help to poorer immigrants. New York last year announced a public-private partnership to help immigrants. California pledged $30 million, mostly in legal help, for young immigrants. Washington state this year authorized $230,000 for legal aid to immigrants.
Republicans, who are in the minority in the Legislature, have mixed views on the new spending.
Republican state Sen. Joe Pennacchio, an early supporter of Trump’s in the state, said it’s not a cut-and-dried issue for him.
He pointed to the prospect of the money going to help children who might be in legal trouble through no fault of their own. But he also said the money could be spent in better ways.
“It’s not a black-and-white issue. Certainly what I feel strongly about is, I don’t want anybody brought here who did harm in their own country or would do harm in our country,” he said.
Republican Assemblyman Hal Wirths says residents can’t afford the money and introduced legislation barring taxpayer dollars from being used to assist immigrants.
Murphy campaigned on the promise of setting up an Office of Immigrant Protection, but the budget does not include that.