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The U.S. immigration courts are in crisis, crippled by backlogs and operating in a state of chaos. With no right to appointed counsel in the immigration court system, the majority of individuals represent themselves before the immigration judge, opposite a federal prosecutor. Immigration laws are complex and the immigration court system is often opaque and confusing.

Against this backdrop, the National Immigrant Justice Center is proud to serve as one of a network of legal service providers who deliver know-your-rights and legal access programming to individuals defending against their deportation without counsel. Legal access programs serve as a critical bulwark against deteriorating due process norms for people navigating the immigration court system. Yet the integrity of these programs is at risk because of a series of escalating actions by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the agency within the Department of Justice that oversees the immigration courts.

Today NIJC has joined with other legal service providers to alert members of Congress to the most recent aggressive actions taken by this administration to undermine the efficacy of legal access programs. Specifically, we urge members to engage in meaningful oversight of the ways in which EOIR is misusing taxpayer funds to create obstacles for NIJC and other organizations conducting know-your-rights programming in the immigration court system. The administration appears to be deliberately using appropriated funds to stack the deck even more heavily against unrepresented immigrants, and Congress must intervene.

The legal access programs funded by EOIR include the Legal Orientation Program, which provides know your rights and individualized self-help programming to immigrants facing removal while detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Immigration Court Helpdesk, pro se support stations operating in non-detained immigration courts. These programs have long enjoyed broad bipartisan support for their vital role in preserving basic due process rights for unrepresented immigrants facing removal proceedings while contributing to the efficient functioning of the courts. Yet despite the long-standing support and success achieved by these programs, they have come under prolonged attack by the current administration. In 2018, we learned that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions intended to terminate LOP. Through congressional intervention, the program was saved and its continuation is now required by appropriations law.

Congress’ clear signaling of support for legal access programs makes the administration’s continued efforts to kill these programs all the more shocking. Among other changes, EOIR has switched up the billing procedures for legal access programming, leaving NIJC and our fellow legal service providers to navigate unnecessary red tape that makes it harder to do our jobs. The agency has also taken numerous steps to restructure EOIR so as to sideline the office that oversees legal access programming, while engaging in rulemaking that we fear will gag LOP providers from engaging in meaningful conversation with program participants.

NIJC and other LOP providers are engaged in daily efforts to triage the crisis centers that the United States immigration courts have become. Our legal service teams show up every day doing their best to provide information and support to those who must need it, in the life and death context of deportation proceedings. Often our teams wake up long before sunrise to drive to remote jails where immigrants without counsel are hungry for any information they can gather to best present their case in immigration court. The U.S. government should be doing all it can to support and promote representation and legal access programming in the immigration courts. Instead, it is actively attempting to undermine due process rights and, along with them, the efficient functioning of the court.

Read the full letter signed by 18 organizations to members of Congress.

Read the joint comment submitted by NIJC and others to EOIR’s recent rulemaking attempting to limit the efficacy of the LOP program.

Heidi Altman is NIJC's director of policy.