DOJ halting legal aid program an assault on due process

DOJ halting legal aid program an assault on due process
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The Trump administration’s war on immigrants continues. By the end of this month, the Department of Justice (DOJ) will temporarily halt a program that offers legal assistance to foreign nationals facing deportation. The DOJ plans to pause the Legal Orientation Program, which serves over 50,000 people a year in 38 detention centers across the country, while it evaluates its cost-effectiveness.

The Washington Post reported that the government says this is necessary to “conduct efficiency reviews which have not taken place in 6 years.” The DOJ will be evaluating a Help Desk program that offers legal services to non-detained immigrants facing deportation as well.  

Even temporarily stopping the Legal Orientation Program will have destructive consequences for our immigration court system. The program helps immigrants understand a system that is complicated and byzantine. The DOJ’s decision to put the brakes on it represents the administration’s latest assault on due process and immigrant rights.

The Legal Orientation Program is run by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice and administered by legal aid organizations in 16 states. The program holds informational sessions for detainees to teach them about their rights, possible avenues for relief, and how the court system works. Lawyers also advise detainees on the availability of low-cost or free legal representation.

These services are vital because, while undocumented immigrants have the right to counsel, they do not have the right to counsel at government expense. Consider that a 2015 report on access to counsel found that only 14 percent of detained immigrants were represented by a lawyer — and this was before the Trump administration began ramping up immigration enforcement.  

The Legal Orientation Program was created in 2003, during the George W. Bush administration, to help immigration courts run more smoothly. It has already been fully funded for 2018 by Congress through the recent omnibus spending bill.

In fact, by several metrics the Legal Orientation Program has been a success. A 2012 DOJ study found that the program was “a cost-effective and efficient way to promote due process,” and that it saved the government $17.8 million one year. A 2008 evaluation by the Vera Institute found that detained immigrants who were served by the Legal Orientation Program had immigration court processing times that were an average of 13 days shorter than cases for detained persons who were not served by the program — and shorter detention stays and quicker court processing times mean less expense to taxpayers. The DOJ website still praises the program, citing its myriad “positive effects” on the immigration court process.     

An array of nonpartisan groups has expressed dismay at the DOJ’s decision to halt the Legal Orientation Program, including the American Bar Association and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The president of the National Association of Immigration Judges called the decision “absolutely mind-boggling” and said it was counterproductive to making courts operate more efficiently.

The DOJ’s decision is troubling when we look at how it will affect those caught up in our immigration court system. They are not all undocumented immigrants; their ranks include asylum-seekers, victims of domestic abuse and trafficking, and even green-card holders and U.S. citizens. Many have endured trauma and have limited English skills. For these people, the Legal Orientation Program is a lifeline that can literally mean the difference between life and death or family separation. The program is especially valuable because many detention centers are located in remote areas, where detainees are far from their loved ones.  

Given the backlog of over 650,000 cases, a more efficient immigration court system is a worthy goal. Were the Trump administration serious about reaching that goal, they would be looking to expand efforts like the Legal Orientation Program. Instead they are pausing the program without announcing any timeline for its review, which could mean its indefinite suspension. Meanwhile, the DOJ is imposing quotas on immigration judges — the same judges who will now have to explain to detainees about their basic rights. This is a recipe for rushed justice and the trampling of due process.

There is no sound policy reason to end a program with a proven record of delivering fair, efficient, and cost-effective outcomes. Restricting the availability of legal resources to immigrant detainees is a betrayal of the American values of liberty and justice for all.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.