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Sessions backtracks on pausing legal aid for immigrants facing deportation

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks before a Senate appropriations subcommittee on the Justice Department’s budget on April 25, 2018, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

After objections from immigration lawyers and lawmakers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday that he would not suspend a legal-aid program for detained immigrants while it undergoes a review.

The government-funded Legal Orientation Program, launched in 2003 under President George W. Bush, was created to ensure that immigrants know their rights and legal options in court. It serves more than 50,000 detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings each year.

Sessions, an immigration hawk, said the U.S. immigration courts had planned to suspend the program starting as early as next week. At a budget hearing before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, he signaled that he had received questions about pausing the program from lawmakers in both parties, including the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), and its ranking Democratic member, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.).

“I have previously expressed some concerns about the program,” Sessions said. “I recognize that this committee has spoken on this matter, and, out of deference to the committee, I have ordered that there be no pause while the review is being conducted.”

Sessions said he also would not suspend a “help desk” run by the Vera Institute of Justice, the nonprofit entity that also holds the federal contract to run the Legal Orientation Program.

This month, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the Justice Department’s immigration courts, said the government intended to evaluate both programs’ cost-effectiveness and determine whether they duplicated other efforts to inform immigrants of their rights under U.S. law. The help desk offers tips to non-detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings in courts in Chicago, Miami, New York, Los Angeles and San Antonio.

Approximately 8 in 10 detainees in immigration court face a government prosecutor without a lawyer, according to Vera. The Legal Orientation Program sends lawyers and paralegals to detention centers to hold hour-long group sessions with detainees to explain their rights, how the court process works and their possible defenses to deportation. They also meet with detainees individually and refer them to free or low-cost lawyers, but do not represent them in court.

Vera said the $8 million-a-year program provides “fundamental” information to “hundreds of thousands” of detained immigrants who are not entitled to public defenders, and has saved the government millions of dollars by helping to move cases more quickly.

The immigration judges’ labor union, immigration lawyers and leading Democratic lawmakers had criticized plans to suspend the program.