UNLIKE DEFENDANTS charged with crimes, illegal immigrants under threat of deportation — a civil proceeding — have no right to a lawyer. Still, those fortunate enough to find legal representation, paid or (in many cases) volunteer, are much more likely to prevail in immigration court. That’s why it’s unsurprising that the Trump administration, as part of its relentless anti- immigrant crusade, is now doing its best to impede what limited access potential deportees are granted to legal information.
Just four months after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials lauded a 15-year-old program that provides detained immigrants with legal advice but not representation, the Justice Department announced this month that it would suspend the program. That’s a neat way to ensure that undocumented immigrants, 80 percent of whom have no lawyer with them in immigration court hearings, are kept in the dark.
Last year, about 53,000 immigrants attended information sessions presented by the Vera Institute of Justice’s Legal Orientation Program — primers on what to expect in immigration proceedings; their rights; and how to find a lawyer who will represent them on a pro bono basis, if one is available. Among the choices routinely outlined for detainees is the right to apply for asylum if they have a legitimate fear of harm if they return home — an option for which the Trump administration harbors particular hostility.
The program is active in 37 jails, detention facilities, processing centers and family shelters where unauthorized immigrants are held, in more than a dozen states. In a memo evaluating the program in November, an ICE official wrote that the program enables detainees “to make better-informed decisions,” improves their chances of securing legal counsel and allows them to “complete their cases faster” than detainees who have not attended an information session offered by the program.
It would be reasonable to think that the administration would have an interest in any program that sped things along in immigration courts, which face a backlog of some 700,000 cases. But President Trump’s Justice Department is targeting the program, ostensibly to assess whether it is “cost-effective,” whatever that means in the context of a regime whose purpose is to provide a bare minimum of legal information to people who otherwise would not have it.
Some states and localities, appalled at the administration’s appetite for deportation, have adopted programs that pay for lawyers to represent undocumented detainees. That’s sensible, especially for immigrants with no criminal records, although it’s fair to wonder whether taxpayers should foot the bill for lawyers to represent detainees who have committed serious crimes. In Montgomery County, for instance, a proposal before the County Council would allocate about $375,000 this year to provide lawyers for some 85 detainees — exempting those convicted of murder, rape or kidnapping but including migrants who committed aggravated assault, breaking and entering, extortion, domestic abuse and illegal gun possession.
That’s over the top. But the fact is that the administration’s deportation campaign has swept up huge numbers of immigrants who have no serious criminal record. Providing them with due process and basic legal information isn’t just fair; it’s smart, too.
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