Halt of Critical Program is Another Attack on Due Process, Access to Counsel in Immigration Courts
Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First today condemned a decision by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to temporarily halt a critical program that provides legal information to detained immigrants and asylum seekers. The suspension of the Legal Orientation Program (LOP), which has long enjoyed bipartisan support and provided legal information to over 53,000 detainees last year alone, is the latest step by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to undermine due process and access to legal counsel in the U.S. immigration court system.
“This decision will leave many thousands of asylum seekers and immigrants stranded in detention facilities without critical information they need to understand the complex legal processes governing their fates,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “The move will also make it much more difficult for many to secure pro bono counsel.”
Unlike in the criminal justice system, where people accused of a crime are provided a lawyer if they cannot pay for one on their own, individuals in immigration removal proceedings—which often determine life-or-death cases, or separate families—are left to navigate the Kafkaesque immigration legal system on their own if they cannot find or afford an attorney.
Moreover, the LOP has already been proven to be effective. An evaluation by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2008 showed that individuals who received LOP services completed their immigration court proceedings 13 days faster than those who did not. An EOIR study in 2012 found that LOP recipients spent six days fewer in detention, yielding cost savings to taxpayers.
The DOJ’s decision also targets the Immigration Court Helpdesk program, which helps non-detained individuals make informed decisions about the immigration court process. Both programs are operated by the Vera Institute, an independent nonprofit organization, and have received bipartisan support. The decision, made under the auspices of investigating the programs’ cost-effectiveness, directly contravenes report language attached to the recent omnibus bill, which states that the Executive Office for Immigration Review in the Department of Justice “shall continue ongoing program,” and adopts language from and the accompanying House report which explicitly outlines which programs must continue: “The recommendation sustains the current legal orientation program and related assistance, such as the information desk pilot.”
Human Rights First has detailed many of the steps taken by Attorney General Sessions and the DOJ to undermine access to legal counsel, due process and asylum in reports on the immigration courts and on the Trump Administration’s attacks on the asylum system. These steps include the imposition of performance quotas on immigration judges, limitations on adjournments necessary to secure legal counsel, the Attorney General’s use of his certification authority in Matter of E-F-H-L- to try to deprive asylum seekers of hearings, and his directions to increase criminal prosecutions for migration offenses, which has resulted in an increase in the criminal prosecution of asylum seekers in violation of US treaty obligations and due process.
“Under this assault on the immigration court system, not only does the Attorney General want to deprive asylum seekers of a hearing because of what they don’t know, he also wants to deny them the basic legal information they need in the first place. It’s unconscionable,” added Acer. “Furthermore, for those who may say this is merely a ‘pause’ to these vital programs, just look at what happened when the administration said it would ‘pause’ refugee resettlement, it decimated the system. While the legal information provided to these detainees will halt, there is no indication that their removal proceedings and detention will also be ‘paused.'”
For years Human Rights First has recruited pro bono counsel for refugees held in immigration detention facilities. These refugees often learned of the organization’s pro bono representation program through LOP programs.