Washington (CNN) The Trump administration is suspending a program that provides legal advice
for undocumented immigrants, a Justice Department official confirmed Wednesday.
Immigrant advocacy groups immediately were concerned that the move could
be an attempt to undercut the rights of immigrants pursuing the ability
to stay in the US.
According to an official with DOJ's Executive Office for Immigration
Review, the body that runs the immigration courts, the agency has "paused"
the General Legal Orientation Program, which advises detained immigrants
of their rights, and an immigration court help desk program that non-detained
aliens can call into. The programs receive about $8 million annually,
the official said.
The Legal Orientation program was created under President George W. Bush
in 2003. Unlike in the criminal justice system, immigrants are allowed
to have legal counsel but the government is not obligated to provide it,
so many undocumented immigrants have no legal help as they argue their
case to stay in the US.
A2012 audit by the Justice Department found, consistent with previous studies, that
the program actually reduced the length of immigration court cases and
detention, saving the government nearly $18 million.
The Washington Post first
reported the decision to pause the program.
The program is administered through outside groups and works with nonprofit
organizations to provide immigrants with presentations, workshop sessions
and referrals to potential pro bono legal services.
Advocates and those who work to represent immigrants immediately decried
the move as a threat to due process rights.
"The Department of Justice's decision to lapse the Executive Office
of Immigration Review's Legal Orientation Program is a shockingly
bad decision that will harm our country," Reps. Jerry Nadler, D-New
York, and Zoe Lofgren, D-California, said in a statement.
The move follows
other recent efforts by the Justice Department to, in their words, expedite the proceedings
in the immigration courts to cut down on the extensive backlog of cases,
which result in some immigrants living in the US for years while they
await their fate.
Most recently, the Justice Department announced it expected immigration
judges, who are not independently appointed but rather selected and overseen
by the attorney general, to
complete a set number of cases each year, the equivalent of roughly three to five cases per day.
"The termination of this vital program is the latest in series of
new policies and announcements from DOJ that are nothing less than an
assault on due process and fundamental fairness," said Benjamin Johnson,
executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The American Bar Association also criticized the move, saying the group
is "deeply disturbed" by it and said it seemed the decision
to suspend the funding was made "arbitrarily."
The General Legal Orientation Program is the largest of five Legal Orientation
Programs that DOJ runs. Three are still in place.
"They're both being paused in order to conduct an internal audit
and review of their effectiveness," the Justice Department official
said. "The General Legal Orientation Program has not had one of these
done in six years. The other is a newer program so a general review has
never been done."
The official said that immigration judges already are required to provide
some information to immigrants about their rights and that they can possibly
find pro bono legal service providers during proceedings.
The three programs not affected by the audit-related suspension are a program
for custodians of unaccompanied minors, a different national call center
and a program that offers assistance to people that EOIR has determined
are legally incompetent, the official said.
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