The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), an agency within the Department of Justice (DOJ) that adjudicates immigration cases and oversees the country’s immigration court system, has announced its intention to halt the Vera Institute of Justice’s Legal Orientation Program (LOP) while it audits the program’s cost-effectiveness. Vera’s LOP program offers legal educational services to detained immigrants. During the audit, the Trump administration will also evaluate the Vera Institute’s information “help desk,” which provides tips to immigrants who are not detained but still facing deportation. This announcement comes as DOJ attempts to deal with the massive backlog of approximately 650,000 immigration court cases by 2020. Earlier this month, the DOJ announced case quotas for immigration judges.
The Vera Institute’s LOP was established in 2003 and partners with non-profit organizations to provide a “legal lifeline” for undocumented immigrants throughout thirty-eight detention facilities in sixteen states. Lawyers and other volunteers working with the program routinely visit these facilities to hold hour-long group information sessions for detained immigrants, during which they explain their legal rights, how the court system works, asylum, and possible defenses to deportation. Some also meet with detained immigrants individually and refer them to lawyers who will work with them pro bono. Last year, Vera Institute held sessions for approximately 53,000 detainees. EOIR’s own website states:
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.
EOIR now states that the reason for this temporary halt is so that the government can “conduct efficiency reviews which have not taken place in six years.” An immigration court official tells the Washington Post that in addition to reviewing cost-effectiveness of the federally funded program, they will also examine whether LOP duplicates efforts within the court system. For example, immigration judges are already required to inform immigrants of their rights before a hearing, including their right to hire a lawyer at their own cost; however, Royce Murray, policy director at the American Immigration Council, worries that judges may not have enough time to properly explain legal rights to immigrants if they must move quickly through cases. “I fear that this will be at the expense of noncitizens,” he tells the Intercept.
The Vera Institute points out that DOJ’s prior analysis has shown that the program saves the government almost eighteen million dollars per year. Congress appears to recognize the benefits of the program and appropriated program funds in the 2018 spending bill, signed by President Trump.
While no official timeline has been given for this cost review, some fear that this suspension could remain throughout the Trump administration’s time in office. Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), calls it an attack on due process and fundamental fairness. “Without LOP, the court system will be less fair, less efficient, and more expensive,” he says. In a press release regarding the decision, the Vera Institute says that the “LOP has had unquestionably positive effects on the immigration court process and terminating it would be fiscally irresponsible.”