TRENTON – The proposed state budget includes a further increase in what the state spends on legal representation for detained immigrants facing deportation.

That appropriation now comes through the state Department of Human Services, which last year established an Office of New Americans, and so was among the topics of pointed discussion at the Assembly budget hearing for the agency held Monday.

Assemblyman Hal Wirths says taxpayers are paying for both the prosecution and the defense in deportation cases – $6.2 million in the current budget, $8.2 million in the coming year.

“We’re taking $15 million of taxpayers’ money and using it in defense of undocumented workers who are here illegally, paying both sides. It doesn’t make any sense,” Wirths said.

“It’s a lose-lose,” he said. “Taxpayers are paying on the prosecution end for the law enforcement and the judges and the prosecutors that doing their job, and the taxpayers are paying on the other side on the defense side.”

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Assemblyman John McKeon says it’s no different than the criminal justice system.

“The taxpayer pays for a prosecutor. The other side, I guess, is the defendant. The taxpayer, when necessary, pays for a public defender,” McKeon said. “And I think the judge is supposed to be neutral.”

Acting Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman says the goal is to make the state welcoming for all individuals, not prioritize one population over another.

“I think we pay for both sides to ensure that all individuals have due process,” Adelman said.

In budget documents, the Department of Human Services said there were approximately 5,300 people detained in New Jersey in 2019 and that of those, around 1,500 received some form of legal screening and 857 were represented through the state-funded program.

Detention numbers decreased during the COVID public health emergency, and the state said more than 1,000 people were assisted through the program between fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

“Generally, our detention numbers have been steady for the last several years. However, we do believe those numbers will be increasing in this coming year,” Adelman said.

Wirths said there are more appropriate uses for what Gov. Phil Murphy is spending on the program.

“The budget is built on federal funds, borrowed funds, a raid on a rainy-day fund, and yet he prioritizes illegal immigration over law-abiding citizens to the tune of $15 million in the last two years,” Wirths said.

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Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, said undocumented immigrants contribute greatly to New Jersey communities, financially and otherwise – and that the word ‘illegal’ shouldn’t be used to refer to people.

“The term ‘illegal’ is something that I think should be removed from the administration or anybody else with respect for folks in general. It shouldn’t be used,” Wimberly said.

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