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Department of Justice Program Defunds Legal Orientation and Help Desk Programs for 53,000 Immigrants Per Year, Violating Congressional Requirements and Undermining Efforts to Reduce Immigration Court Backlogs

Statement of Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director, National Immigrant Justice Center

Today the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and immigration legal service providers across the country received the alarming news that the Department of Justice (DOJ) plans to  terminate the Legal Orientation Program (LOP) and the Immigration Court Helpdesk program. LOP is a life line for the more than 40,000 immigrants who face complex deportation proceedings from remote detention facilities every day. Through LOP, legal service organizations provide basic information to men and women in immigration jails about the detention and deportation process. The goals of the bipartisan program  are to improve judicial efficiency and help immigrants in detention without attorneys navigate the immigration court process. Today, LOP services reach 40 detention facilities and over 50,000 detained people in desperate need of legal services.

Terminating the LOP and help desk programs is an affront to Congress. The report language accompanying the 2018 omnibus spending bill explicitly required the Executive Office for Immigration Review to “continue ongoing programs,” adopted language in the House Report providing that funding “sustains the current legal orientation program and related assistance, such as the information desk pilot,” and adopted language in the Senate Report noting the need for expanded LOP services in remote immigration facilities.

Terminating the LOP and help desk program is a deliberate attempt to eliminate due process from the deportation process. News of the legal orientation program termination comes when the administration is forcing unreasonable quotas on immigration judges to accelerate adjudications in the massively backlogged court system, and also pursuing a policy of mass prolonged detention at the border. This is a blatant attempt by the administration to strip detained immigrants of even the pretense of due process rights. Because more than four out of every five detained immigrants are unable to access legal representation, LOP staff are quite literally the last and only line of defense for detained individuals trying to understand how to represent themselves in their claims to asylum and other forms of protection in immigration court.

Terminating the LOP program is an act of flagrant fiscal irresponsibility. A 2012 DOJ study found that detained immigrants who received legal orientation completed their court proceedings more quickly and remained detained for an average of six fewer days, yielding the government a net savings of more than $17.8 million per year.

NIJC calls on Congress to oppose the administration’s affront to due process  by taking any and all steps possible to ensure that DOJ complies with its congressional directives and maintains the LOP and help desk programs as they currently exist.