An ‘Urgent’ Need for Pro Bono Lawyers in NJ’s Immigration Courts

Rosa Santana (Photo via Reporte Hispano)

Rosa Santana, of Honduran heritage, is a coordinator with First Friends of NJ and NY, an organization dedicated to paying visits to inmates at immigration prisons across the state. She hopes that the new governor will lend a hand to detainees. Here is the interview.

Which cases have moved you the most, personally?

I remember a young man whose adoptive father was from Panama. He had adopted him when [the boy] was 2 and, after 40 years of having solved everything, they came back for him. At 18, he had committed a crime. He paid his debt to society and had been on probation. He started working in New York, got married, had two children, and, one day, they came back for him for an old felony. They told him that they needed to fill beds (they need to keep a quota of 34,000 detained people per day), and took him. I was so sad. Someone who built his life here is suddenly facing deportation.

Has the number of detained immigrants increased since President Donald Trump took office?

We have certainly seen how the number of people detained has risen. For instance, there used to be 200 in Bergen County Jail. Last July, they opened a dormitory for detained women. That had never happened before. Now, there are nine dormitories and, counting the women, there are 400 detainees. In Hudson County, it sometimes goes up to 590 or 600. In Essex, where most of the New York detainees are, it has also gone up. In all of them.

What about health conditions?

Two people have died in the last few weeks in Hudson County. They say that one of them committed suicide and the other one they don’t know. It’s upsetting. They had both been in the same cell and one of them had mental problems. They did not notice that the person had a nail clipper. If this person had problems, they shouldn’t have left them alone for a minute.

I remember that there were complaints about a very old dentist.

We have not heard any more complaints. There have been improvements, but they still have a lot of work to do. However, we don’t want to go only by the word of the authorities. We will go and talk to the inmates.

Are you in favor of closing these detention centers?

That would be ideal, but at this time that is unrealistic because the detainees would be the ones to suffer, as they would be moved somewhere farther away. Here, at least we, the volunteers, and their relatives can visit them. If they go far away, that will not happen. What we are fighting for is for them to get fairer treatment, for their rights to be respected.

What would you ask the new governor, Phil Murphy, to do?

We believe that there is much he can do for these people. The first and most urgent thing is to get them legal assistance through pro bono or state-appointed lawyers as they do in New York, where they have universal representation when someone goes to immigration court to have their case heard.

Do you help them when they are released?

Yes. After their release, many of them have nowhere to go. We offer them temporary shelter in churches, or through SEAFARERS, a program of the Lutheran Church. They have a hotel of sorts where they lodge them, usually in two or three rooms. There is also a house in Jersey City through the Episcopal Church. There are currently six people there. Also, we work with Church for Services, which assist them for a longer period. We refer them, and they help them with social services, food stamps, insurance, financial assistance and a home.

Tell us about the volunteers.

We have close to 200 of them. We train them on the second and fourth Friday of each month for an hour each time. We explain to them that we are not attorneys or social workers. We are here basically to offer compassion and hope during our visits. We are concerned about their health and their well-being and with making prison conditions less dire.

How do you get along with the authorities at the detention centers?

There is a good relationship. Every first of the month or mid-month, we send them a list of the volunteers who will be visiting the detainees.

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