Federal officials praised a legal-aid program that educates detained immigrants about their rights four months before the Justice Department said it would suspend the initiative to audit its effectiveness, according to a government memo obtained by The Washington Post.
In the Nov. 30 memo, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the federally funded Legal Orientation Program was launched to “assist all parties” in detainee-deportation cases, and instructed field office directors to grant lawyers and paralegals access to more than 30 detention centers from California to Virginia.
The program, launched in 2003 under President George W. Bush, was created to ensure that immigrants know their rights and legal options in court, the memo said.
“Experience has shown that LOP attendees are positioned to make better informed decisions, are more likely to obtain legal representation, and complete their cases faster than detainees who have not” gone through the program, Tae Johnson, assistant director for custody management at ICE, said in the memo.
An immigration court spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the issue, said that ICE’s memo is based on outdated information and that a new review is needed.
But immigrant rights advocates said the memo shows that ICE believes the legal-aid program, which serves more than 50,000 immigrants a year, is effective. A similar description of the program is on the Justice Department’s website. The Justice Department declined to comment.
In explaining their decision to temporarily halt the program at the end of this month, federal officials have said that immigration judges already inform immigrants of their rights in court.
The issue is expected to come up Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee hearing.
Democrats, lawyers and the immigration judges union say immigrants who face possible deportation need the Legal Orientation Program because — unlike criminal defendants in the United States — they are not entitled to government lawyers.
An estimated 8 in 10 detainees have no lawyer, and the $8 million-a-year program is often the only assistance they receive outside of court, said the Vera Institute of Justice, which runs the program for the Justice Department.
The institute says the program saves the government millions of dollars in detention costs a year by explaining options to immigrants in English and Spanish and helping them avoid unnecessary delays in processing their cases. Some are released on bond, while others opt to return home.
Immigration arrests rose 42 percent during the past fiscal year, and a top immigration official recently said the backlog of cases in immigration court is on track to exceed 730,000 by October.
Andrew R. Arthur, a former immigration judge and now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors less immigration, said it makes sense to pause and evaluate the program.
“I think it’s definitely something that should be audited by the Department of Justice to determine whether it’s cost-
effective or whether the money would be better spent on something else,” he said.
But the immigration judges union said the Legal Orientation Program is “highly valuable” and should keep operating during the audit.
“From our experience as immigration judges, the program is cost effective,” said Dana Leigh Marks, a San Francisco immigration judge and spokeswoman for the National Association of Immigration Judges.
Vera runs the program through local contractors, which send lawyers and paralegals into detention centers to hold group information sessions and one-on-one workshops with immigrants. The program does not defend immigrants but rather connects them to low-cost or free lawyers who can help them.
Democrats and immigration rights advocates said the administration’s scrutiny of the program is an attempt to sweep cases through the system more quickly.
“They’re basically going to be doing everything blind,” said Melissa M. Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, a nonprofit based in El Paso that works with migrants in Texas and New Mexico through the program.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the Trump administration’s decision “inexcusable,” and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) — the ranking minority member of the subcommittee holding Wednesday’s hearings — described it as an “attack on due process.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the government “should be working to make our immigration system more fair and accurate, not less.”