NJ budget sets aside $3M for legal help for unaccompanied minors
It's a small slice of the $46.4 billion budget passed by the New Jersey Legislature and signed by Gov. Phil Murphy last week, but it will make the Garden State one of the only ones in the nation to set aside money statewide for the purpose.
Juveniles from foreign countries who enter the United States as unaccompanied minors will now have access to a $3 million pool for legal representation, to fight deportation efforts and find family members in New Jersey.
Randi Mandelbaum, distinguished clinical professor of law at Rutgers Law School in Newark and director of the Child Advocacy Clinic, said when a child arrives alone at the border, Customs and Border Protection must turn the minor over to the Department of Health and Human Services, whose Office of Refugee Resettlement is responsible for relocating the child.
"If a child, let's say, has an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent living in New Jersey, ORR would look to place the child with that relative," Mandelbaum said. "It could even also be a parent."
Since around 2014, Mandelbaum said, New Jersey has taken in more than 15,000 of these kids, and expects to receive another 4,000 to 5,000 in the ensuing fiscal year.
They are vulnerable, they have faced trauma, and they have suffered, and they feel that this country will offer them a better chance at survival.
"They are leaving some very violent, dangerous situations, and their journey to the U.S. is also often a dangerous one," Mandelbaum said.
HHS data show one-third of unaccompanied minors do not have close family in the United States, as Newsweek reported last week.
Many do have legal cause to be here, Mandelbaum said; it's just that they may lack the knowledge, maturity, or most importantly, resources to advocate for a green card.
"The program that the governor is seeking to initiate is just so critical, that New Jersey has stepped up like California and parts of New York to provide legal representation and also case management," Mandelbaum said.
But is $3 million enough?
It's a "great beginning," according to Mandelbaum, and will help these kids enroll in school as well as needed medical and mental health services.
Yet given the projected glut of migrant children who will come to New Jersey in the next 12 months, Mandelbaum said the appropriation needs to be more than a one-shot deal.
"My hope is that this gets replicated each year and that in time it increases, because $3 million is not going to begin to represent all of the unaccompanied children and youth," she said.