The Trump administration is suspending a program that provides legal advice for undocumented immigrants, a Justice Department official confirmed Wednesday.
Immigrant advocacy groups immediately were concerned that the move could be an attempt to undercut the rights of immigrants pursuing the ability to stay in the US.
According to an official with DOJ's Executive Office for Immigration Review, the body that runs the immigration courts, the agency has "paused" the General Legal Orientation Program, which advises detained immigrants of their rights, and an immigration court help desk program that non-detained aliens can call into. The programs receive about $8 million annually, the official said.
The Legal Orientation program was created under President George W. Bush in 2003. Unlike in the criminal justice system, immigrants are allowed to have legal counsel but the government is not obligated to provide it, so many undocumented immigrants have no legal help as they argue their case to stay in the US.
A 2012 audit by the Justice Department found, consistent with previous studies, that the program actually reduced the length of immigration court cases and detention, saving the government nearly $18 million.
The Washington Post first reported the decision to pause the program.
The program is administered through outside groups and works with nonprofit organizations to provide immigrants with presentations, workshop sessions and referrals to potential pro bono legal services.
Advocates and those who work to represent immigrants immediately decried the move as a threat to due process rights.
"The Department of Justice's decision to lapse the Executive Office of Immigration Review's Legal Orientation Program is a shockingly bad decision that will harm our country," Reps. Jerry Nadler, D-New York, and Zoe Lofgren, D-California, said in a statement.
The move follows other recent efforts by the Justice Department to, in their words, expedite the proceedings in the immigration courts to cut down on the extensive backlog of cases, which result in some immigrants living in the US for years while they await their fate.
Most recently, the Justice Department announced it expected immigration judges, who are not independently appointed but rather selected and overseen by the attorney general, to complete a set number of cases each year, the equivalent of roughly three to five cases per day.
"The termination of this vital program is the latest in series of new policies and announcements from DOJ that are nothing less than an assault on due process and fundamental fairness," said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The American Bar Association also criticized the move, saying the group is "deeply disturbed" by it and said it seemed the decision to suspend the funding was made "arbitrarily."
The General Legal Orientation Program is the largest of five Legal Orientation Programs that DOJ runs. Three are still in place.
"They're both being paused in order to conduct an internal audit and review of their effectiveness," the Justice Department official said. "The General Legal Orientation Program has not had one of these done in six years. The other is a newer program so a general review has never been done."
The official said that immigration judges already are required to provide some information to immigrants about their rights and that they can possibly find pro bono legal service providers during proceedings.
The three programs not affected by the audit-related suspension are a program for custodians of unaccompanied minors, a different national call center and a program that offers assistance to people that EOIR has determined are legally incompetent, the official said.