Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department was going to introduce case “quotas” for judges in U.S. immigration courts. Today, the Washington Post reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is taking his attack on the rights of immigrant detainees even further.
According to the Post’s Maria Sacchetti, the Justice Department has “temporarily” halted a legal assistance program for “detained foreign nationals” while “it audits the program’s cost effectiveness.” The Post says that the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, which has a contract with DOJ to administer the Legal Orientation Program held information sessions for over 53,000 immigrants in over a dozen states in 2017.
People facing hearings in immigration courts are not entitled to government-appointed and funded lawyers, and according to Vera, that means many don’t receive any representation at all. “84% of detained individuals in removal proceedings receive no legal representation,” Vera’s website says. “LOP fills a critical gap in this system by providing access to justice for thousands of individuals each year.” (Splinter requested comment from Vera and we’ll update if we get a response.)
That’s not all: the Post reports that the Justice Department is also “evaluating” a help desk run by Vera for “non-detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings” in five immigration courts.
The reasoning given to the Post for this decision, by an anonymous immigration court official, makes no sense (emphasis mine):
The Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs the Justice Department’s immigration courts, said the government wants to “conduct efficiency reviews which have not taken place in six years.” An immigration court official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the audit has not been formally announced, said the review will examine the cost-effectiveness of the federally funded programs and whether they duplicate efforts within the court system. He noted, for example, that immigration judges are already required to inform immigrants of their rights before a hearing, including their right to find a lawyer at their own expense.
Sure, let’s depend on judges employed by the Justice Department—whose job evaluations will now be based on their ability to speed through deportation cases—to adequately inform immigrants facing deportation—who already by and large don’t receive adequate legal counsel—that they have the right to fight their cases. Nothing will go wrong there.
The “cost-effectiveness” argument is a convenient excuse to stop a program which is purported to actually save the government money. In 2015, the Justice Department said at the time, the program cost just $7.2 million, a fraction of a fraction of the federal budget. And in a statement to the Post, Vera cited a study by the Justice Department in 2012, which said the LOP was a “’a cost-effective and efficient way to promote due process’ that saved the government nearly $18 million over one year.”
Furthermore, the DOJ itself is still defending the program, according to its website. “Experience has shown that the LOP has had positive effects on the immigration court process,” the Justice Department website says. “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.”
Not surprisingly, immigrant rights’ groups are seeing the move for what it is. “This is a blatant attempt by the administration to strip detained immigrants of even the pretense of due-process rights,” Mary Meg McCarthy, the executive director of the Vera partner National Immigrant Justice Center, told Sacchetti.