Immigration Law

ABA condemns suspension of Justice Department's Legal Orientation Program for immigrants

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Hilarie Bass

ABA President Hilarie Bass. Photo by the Canadian Press Images/Michael Desjardins.

ABA President Hilarie Bass says the ABA is “deeply disturbed” that the Justice Department has suspended funding for a “know your rights” program for immigrants, an ABA press release said Wednesday.

As the Washington Post reported, the Justice Department has suspended funding for the Legal Orientation Program it funds through 19 nonprofits, including the ABA’s Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in South Texas and the Immigration Justice Project in San Diego. The program offers information to people with cases in the immigration court system about how that system works and what their rights are. The Justice Department said it planned to review the cost-efficiency of the program.

“Dismantling these valuable programs, even on a temporary basis, eviscerates due process and eliminates transparency and humanity in our immigration system,” the statement said. “The American Bar Association calls on the Department of Justice to continue funding this important program at its current level and urges Congress to ensure appropriate funding as well.”

The Legal Orientation Program was launched by DOJ in 2003 and offers hour-long sessions providing basic information on the immigration court system. These orientations are important, advocates say, because immigrants are not entitled to court-appointed lawyers, often don’t speak English fluently and may not be familiar with the U.S. legal system. In 2017, the Post says, the program served 53,000 immigrants in more than 12 states. The Department of Justice is also reviewing a related “help desk” program that offers legal help to immigrants who are not detained but facing deportation in certain cities.

An anonymous DOJ official told the Post that the goal is to review whether the program can be eliminated because it duplicates efforts elsewhere. For example, the official said, immigration judges already must tell immigrants their rights at the beginning of a court hearing, so the hour-long information sessions may not be necessary.

Bass’s statement disagrees, noting that previous reviews of the programs have found that they are not only effective, but save taxpayer money. A 2012 study by the Justice Department said the program saved the government nearly $18 million over a year, the Post notes. Because there’s no right to counsel in immigration court, giving immigrant a basic understanding of the court proceedings they are in may reduce wasted time and continuances judges grant them in order to find lawyers.

Mary Meg McCarthy, chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration and executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, suggested a nonfinancial motive.

“This is a blatant attempt by the administration to strip detained immigrants of even the pretense of due process rights,” McCarthy told the Post.

The Justice Department, in which the immigration courts are housed, has made multiple changes in recent months intended to clear the courts’ large backlog—including last week’s announcement that immigration judges’ job performance will be evaluated according to how quickly they close cases. It was not clear whether the loss of the Legal Orientation Program was intended to help in that effort.

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