The Justice Department is temporarily shutting down a program that provides detained illegal immigrants awaiting a court appearance with an explanation of the U.S. legal process.
The Legal Orientation Program, operated by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, claims to have provided legal aid services to more than 53,000 immigrants last year. It also operates the Immigration Court Helpdesk, which educates non-detained immigrants involved in deportation proceedings about the court process.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review told The Washington Post that the government is pausing the program at the end of the month to “conduct efficiency reviews which have not taken place in six years.
“Two out of five legal orientation programs have been paused in order to conduct an audit of effectiveness, which has never occurred for one program and has not occurred in six years for the other,” an official said on behalf of the Justice Department.
The official also said the government is conducting the audit to determine whether the program offers duplicate services that could be cut in a cost-saving measure.
BREAKING: Yesterday, we learned DOJ is halting our Legal Orientation Program (LOP) as of April 30th. LOP ensures that all immigrants in detention are provided with essential information they need to navigate the complex legal system, serving over 50K per year. #SaveLOP
— Vera (@verainstitute) April 11, 2018
Not surprisingly, the head of The Vera Institute slammed the DOJ’s decision.
“This is a blatant attempt by the administration to strip detained immigrants of even the pretense of due-process rights,” Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center — one of the organizations that offers the legal services with Vera — told The Washington Post.
“Every day this program is not in operation puts family unity at risk, harms our communities, and infringes on the right of all people to make informed decisions about their legal claims,” the Vera Institute said in a statement.
The statement also called its program a “lifeline for many immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and green-card holders — some who are fighting for their lives — who would otherwise not know the rights they have or the odds they face.”
The move is likely related to the Trump administration’s mission to reduce the mounting backlog in immigration court cases.
The DOJ announced last week it will begin evaluating immigration court judges based on how quickly they are able to close cases. Under the new rules, immigration judges will be required to complete at least 700 cases per year and can have no more than 15 percent of their decisions sent back by a higher court.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also wants to limit the number of continuances that can be granted to an immigrant in immigration courts.
The Government Accountability Office released a report last year that found backlog in immigration court cases doubled from fiscal years 2006 to 2015.
The number of cases increased by 30,000 during the first two months of the government’s 2018 fiscal year — which began in October — to almost 660,000 according to a count of case records conducted by Syracuse University.
What makes the temporary closure of its services upsetting to the Vera Institute is the fact a 2012 study by the Justice Department found the institute’s programs were “a cost-effective and efficient way to promote due process” that saved the government nearly $18 million a year.
“Experience has shown that the LOP has had positive effects on the immigration court process: detained individuals make wiser, more informed, decisions and are more likely to obtain representation; non-profit organizations reach a wider audience of people with minimal resources; and, cases are more likely to be completed faster, resulting in fewer court hearings and less time spent in detention,” the agency’s website says.
While advocates claim any disruption to legal aid services for illegal immigrants denies them due process, immigration proceedings take place in immigration courts, not criminal courts. As a result, Congress can regulate immigration proceedings as it sees fit to best deal with the issue, especially as it relates to national security.
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