DOJ Cuts Funding for Know-Your-Rights Trainings for Detained Immigrants

Jeff Sessions, head of the DOJ under Trump.
Jeff Sessions, head of the DOJ under Trump. reinstein
Effective April 30, the Department of Justice is suspending funding for know-your-rights trainings at immigrant detention centers, including at Colorado’s sole detention center, in Aurora. Run by the private prison company GEO Group, the facility can house up to 1,500 detainees going through immigration proceedings.

"This decision flies in the face of common sense," says Mekela Goehring, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), the nonprofit contracted to provide legal trainings at the Aurora facility.

The DOJ started the Legal Orientation Program back in 2003 under the George W. Bush administration and has provided about $8 million a year in funding to the Vera Institute of Justice, which in turn distributes the money to programs such as RMIAN. According to Vera, the program serves over 53,000 people a year in 38 different detention centers.

Goehring calls the trainings critical. She explains that in immigration proceedings, defendants who appear before an immigration judge are not automatically provided lawyers, the way that public defenders are assigned in criminal court. As a result, she says, 91 percent of detainees at the Aurora detention center don't obtain a lawyer to advocate on their behalf and counterbalance Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its expert prosecutors in the courtroom. That means that RMIAN’s know-your-rights trainings, individual consultations and, to the extent that her organization can provide them, pro bono trial lawyers are many detainees’ only shot at understanding their cases and navigating the notoriously complex world of immigration law.

"Imagine being isolated and having no access to counsel and trying to make an informed decision about your case. It's virtually impossible," says Goehring. “For the folks that we serve through this program who come to our orientations, it really is their one — and many times only — opportunity to talk to an attorney and try to get legal information so that they can make informed decisions about their cases."

Legal advice provided to immigrants is important for a number of reasons. Many times, defendants in immigration proceedings don’t know that there are legal means — including special visas — that allow them to stay in the United States. A 2015 study by the University of Pennsylvania claims that five and a half times as many immigrants would win cases if there were universal legal representation for defendants in the nation’s immigration courtrooms.

Moreover, the Legal Orientation Program that the DOJ has funded since 2003 has been proven to streamline immigration proceedings because defendants already have some understanding of the process after going through an orientation.

While the DOJ has not announced its suspension of funding for the Legal Orientation Program publicly, nonprofits like RMIAN were notified by the Vera Institute of Justice last Tuesday, April 10. A day later, Vera slammed the decision in a press release and noted the following:

“The Department of Justice concluded in a 2012 study that this essential work is a cost-effective and efficient way to promote due process and cut through the large backlog of cases, the most significant issue facing the immigration courts today. The same study found that the program created a net savings for the government of nearly $18 million — meaning, every $1 the government spent on LOP saved $4. This is why LOP has had strong support in Congress, which maintained its full funding in FY 2018.”

Goehring says that the DOJ is suspending its funding to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the program, but that reasoning makes little sense to her, because similar assessments have already been done while not suspending the program and — especially in the case of the aforementioned 2012 study — have shown that the program reduces immigration court backlog, which is at record highs under the Trump administration after a nearly 40 percent increase in ICE arrests during his first year in office as compared to the previous year.

"What particularly does not make sense about this decision is that, if the desire is genuine to evaluate the program, why not conduct the evaluation while the program is ongoing?” notes Goehring. "This is going to place a burden on the courts, because the immigration judge is just an impartial arbiter in the court and cannot be an advocate and provide information in the same way that a nonprofit organization that is staffed with expert immigration attorneys who practice deportation defense can do."

Moreover, the DOJ program represents 20 percent of RMIAN’s operating budget.

"Internally, we're trying to figure out our strategy moving forward,” Goehring says. “We know how vital it is to provide access to legal counsel to people who are in immigration detention centers, so we are going to be fighting every way we can to make sure that we are still able to provide that information. Obviously, it’s going to be a huge challenge with a loss of funding, and so we're trying to fundraise to secure alternate means. Also, we're working really hard to convince the Department of Justice to re-evaluate and reverse this decision."
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker