You wake up early one morning to realize that men wearing bulletproof vests have come to your home. They immediately demand to take you with them. They transport you thousands of miles away to a prison-like facility and tell you that you must stay there until a judge — who appears on a video screen — decides whether you can go back to live with your family or be directly transported to another country. You go through this process alone, with no ability to speak with an attorney or anyone who can give you knowledge of your legal rights or even help you make sense of what is happening.
This will soon be the reality for the tens of thousands of individuals who are arrested and held in detention facilities by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice effectively decided to suspend the Legal Orientation Program, citing concerns about cost-effectiveness.
The Department of Justice established the LOP in 2003 to improve the efficiency of the immigration courts by helping unrepresented detained immigrants work with an attorney to prepare their cases. The program operates through 18 nonprofit organizations across the country and has a budget of just under $8 million. At least once a month, these organizations bring both paid attorneys and volunteers from the community to over 38 detention centers to educate detained immigrants about their rights through group orientations, individual consultations and self-help workshops.
These interactions with attorneys, along with the legal resources that the program makes available, help detained immigrants make informed decisions about their cases and prepare for their court hearings. LOP organizations also refer detained individuals to pro bono attorneys when they are unable to represent themselves or would benefit from direct legal representation.
The men, women and children who LOP assists cannot search for help from attorneys on their own — many are confined in detention centers located hours from a major city — and the government does not provide them an attorney. Without LOP staff and volunteers physically visiting detention centers, detained immigrants must resort to calling attorneys through a phone system that either requires purchasing a phone card (something that is difficult when you have no access to money, because you are detained) or hoping law offices will answer collect calls. As a result, 84 percent of detained individuals do not have legal representation in deportation proceedings.
For over 50,000 detained immigrants every year, LOP organizations have provided the only guaranteed source of legal information and assistance in making informed decisions about their deportation proceedings. Because LOP organizations can also communicate with pro bono attorneys on the outside, this program also plays a crucial role in connecting detained individuals to legal representation. Represented individuals are more than twice as likely to avoid deportation, meaning LOP providers are directly responsible for helping detained immigrants avoid being deported, being torn away from their families and suffering the collateral consequences of being forced out of the country, which can include death.
In my visits to immigration courts across the country as a volunteer attorney, I have witnessed firsthand how the LOP volunteers serve as a rare lifeline for immigrants in detention. Each visit, I play my part in the same heartbreaking scene: I arrive with other volunteer attorneys to find an empty room with a TV screen. We are connected to a feed at one of the country’s many detention facilities, located in remote towns that would take hours to physically reach.
There are a number of immigrants waiting patiently to speak with us, sometimes a handful, sometimes over a dozen, almost all without a lawyer to represent them. Many of them do not understand why they have been in immigration custody or what was going to happen during the hearing that day. We have just a short time before they appear in court, giving us on average less than 10 minutes to attempt to answer the dozens of questions they have about their immigration cases.
At the end of the conversation with every individual, we always inform them that they should speak more in-depth with a volunteer through the Legal Orientation Program’s monthly visit. During the hearing, the immigration judge parrots the same advice: that they should to speak with LOP volunteers for more help with their questions, to help them find an attorney and to prepare them for the next hearing.
The DOJ would effectively eliminate the only guaranteed way that detained immigrants can access guidance in a high-stakes legal setting.
Opponents of the Legal Orientation Program argue that the program is “duplicative” because immigration judges are supposed to advise immigrants of their rights during their hearings. First, we should give up the pretense that someone without a law degree can understand one of the most complex areas of law after hearing it for the first time in the middle of a courtroom proceeding.
This argument also ignores the most important function of the Legal Orientation Program for immigrants and for defenders of the larger justice system in the U.S.: This program helps people find an attorney. An immigration judge, as opposed to an LOP volunteer, cannot, by definition, provide advice to the immigrant, cannot represent them in their hearings, and cannot facilitate communication with other attorneys who may provide them representation. The Legal Orientation Program fulfills these needs, which are pivotal to the functioning of a just legal system.
By cutting off individuals’ access to legal information through the Legal Orientation Program, and forcing those who are locked up during their deportation proceedings to get all information about their rights from an ostensibly neutral arbiter, the DOJ would effectively eliminate the only guaranteed way that detained immigrants can access crucial, reputable guidance in a high-stakes legal setting. This will affect the lives of everyone whom the current administration wants to detain, including those fleeing persecution, children, pregnant women, parents who are long-term residents of this country, people with medical conditions and even U.S. citizens.
In effect, without access to an LOP volunteer and attorney, almost anyone who is detained by ICE is virtually guaranteed to be deported, with no effective defense against a government attorney or an immigration judge, who has been mandated by this administration to close deportation cases as quickly as possible, fair day in court be damned.
If the Department of Justice moves to end the Legal Orientation Program for good, it will strip away the last shred of evidence that immigrants have a right to due process and will eliminate any semblance of justice left in the immigration system. The immigration courts will effectively become a sham, in utter betrayal of our country’s rich immigrant heritage.
Em Puhl is a San Joaquin Valley Law Fellow at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and a former attorney adviser at the Executive Office for Immigration Review in the Department of Justice.