A federal program that has helped detained immigrants navigate the courts for the last 15 years is about to be cancelled.
The Legal Orientation Program, which President George W. Bush put into place in 2003, helps detained immigrants know their rights and legal options while facing deportation proceedings. At the end of the month, the Justice Department will temporarily halt the program while an audit assesses its cost-effectiveness.
The Legal Orientation Program, which President George W. Bush put into place in 2003, helps detained immigrants know their rights and legal options.
“As far as we’re concerned, it’s basically cancelled,” said Patricia Ortiz, program director of Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, a program of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles. Esperanza had been receiving $500,000 a year to serve 6,000 immigrants in Southern California through the Legal Orientation Program and the Immigration Court Help Desk.
“We were told our contract would end as of April 30,” Ms. Ortiz said. “We weren’t given any idea that it would be renewed sometime.”
Nationally, the $8 million program serves 50,000 people a year in 38 large detention centers. Eight Catholic Charities programs take part in administering the program.
Nationally, the $8 million program serves 50,000 people a year in 38 large detention centers.
“Without these programs, the immigration process is too complex and convoluted,” Ms. Ortiz said. “It’s not plausible to ask someone to do it on their own, especially someone who might be dealing with PTSD or who doesn’t speak the language. We sometimes provide services for people who can’t read. I’m not sure how they’re expected to represent themselves.”
A large number of detained immigrants are asylum seekers fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries, she said. Esperanza recently helped siblings from Cameroon win an asylum case, Ms. Ortiz said. Oftentimes, those fleeing persecution do not understand how to prove their asylum claim, a process that has become more difficult recently.
“People get a little stuck in their prejudices, but when you see the individuals that are coming, it’s very different from the narrative that’s being presented,” Ms. Ortiz said. “I don’t think anyone is coming here to take advantage of the system. They’re coming because they have no other option. Once they’re here and given an opportunity, they do great things.”
Martin Gauto, an attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., noted that the program has benefitted not only immigrants but also the government. Studies have shown it helps with court efficiency and reduces detention time.
The Washington Post reported on a November Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo that praised the Legal Orientation Program, which led to immigrants spending less time in ICE custody. The last Justice Department study, conducted in 2012, found the program saved the federal government nearly $18 million a year.
“There’s no need to pause the program while they do the audit, as the last study clearly showed,” Mr. Guato said. Halting the program, even temporarily, will hurt detainees and their ability to get due process, he said. It will also impact the organizations that provide legal services to immigrants.
The nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, which runs the Legal Orientation Program, issued a statement assuring those they serve of their ongoing commitment.
“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 statement read. The program “has had unquestionably positive effects on the immigration court process and terminating it would be fiscally irresponsible.”