On Tuesday, the Executive Office of Immigration Review announced that it would suspend the Legal Orientation Program (LOP) to assess its cost-effectiveness. The program exists not to represent detained immigrants but to offer advice to those without representation who face deportation. Its services range from connecting detainees to free or low-cost lawyers to informing them of the nature of the proceedings they’re about to face and offering possible strategies. It also runs a help line for those with specific questions.
The program is operated by the non-profit Vera Institute of Justice, and according to the Washington Post, the explanation for the suspension that will start in May is that the program is being audited to see if it is redundant. Immigration court judges are already required to explain to those who come before them of their rights, the process, and that they have a right counsel if they can secure it. Still, when the program was last audited in 2012 and determined to save the government nearly $18 million, LOP remained active during the review period.
The decision, viewed next to the decision to create quotas to speed up immigration courts and the effort to end “catch and release,” sounds like an effort to make deportations faster and easier. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Keeping immigrants uninformed and in the dark about their options serves no one except an administration with an agenda to railroad vulnerable individuals out of our country by refusing to provide them with basic information and access to the legal process that is a cornerstone of our democracy.”
Benjamin Johnson, Executive Director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association is similarly outraged. In a statement, he said:
Terminating the LOP, a proven program established 15 years ago by then-President George W. Bush, will strip the immigration court system of critical resources that ensure the most basic commitment to fairness and due process. Defunding LOP and other tools like the immigration court information help desk means that many thousands of people will be ushered through the system without understanding their rights and how the process works. Without LOP, the court system will be less fair, less efficient, and more expensive. Cases will move more slowly and more people will be held in detention for longer periods of time, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
The xenophobic rhetoric of the Trump Administration has made every decision it makes that adversely affects immigration law—even temporarily—sound like part of a pattern that targets immigrants, particularly those from Mexico and Central America. As Benjamin Johnson observes, those efforts conflict with basic tenets of American law.
“The termination of this vital program is the latest in a series of new policies and announcements from DOJ that are nothing less than an assault on due process and fundamental fairness,” he said. “It is time for Congress to hold the Attorney General accountable and demand the Department of Justice keep the LOP running. The 2018 spending bill requires it, as does the U.S. Constitution which guarantees equal protection under the law for everyone.”
These actions underline the importance of securing an experienced immigration attorney to help navigate the court system and make sure that, as the system itself faces potential changes, you have someone to look out for your interests.