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SPLC: Trump administration should help, not hinder detained immigrants’ access to legal information

The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) decision to halt a program that provides legal information to detained immigrants is just the latest attempt by the Trump administration to ramp up a draconian immigration enforcement regime and expand the mass incarceration of immigrants. 

Though not a substitute for legal representation, legal orientation programs help to demystify murky and complex immigration laws. These programs have helped thousands of immigrants understand their rights and their eligibility, if any, for immigration relief.

It comes as no surprise that Trump has called for this. His immigration agenda is driven not by facts, but by the rhetoric of hate and fear. During his campaign, Trump described Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists.” Since taking office, he has described African nations and Haiti as “shithole countries,” and has said that the U.S. “should have more people from Norway.”

Trump has appointed individuals such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who maintain cozy relationships with America’s anti-immigrant movement. To make matters worse, Sessions has imposed a quota on immigration judges, pushing them to quickly clear 700 cases a year in order to receive a “satisfactory” rating, which will further subvert due process rights as judges place speed above accuracy and their own job security ahead of justice.

Even before the quotas were announced, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was already violating immigrants’ due process rights by imposing barriers that prevent them from meeting with their attorneys or sitting with their attorneys when they appear in court. And many immigration judges, who are DOJ employees, intentionally intimidate detained immigrants and their family members and block language access for immigrants who have limited English proficiency, among other abuses.

But immigrants caught up in the deportation dragnet have a right to due process.

Instead of halting the Legal Orientation Program – which offers legal information to detained immigrants and increases the chance that those with strong cases may receive full legal representation – the government should be doing more to ensure that people in immigration prisons get the basic legal information they need to understand their own situations. 

The vast majority of detained immigrants have been accused of nothing more than being in the U.S. without permission. They are men, women, children and families who are trying to make ends meet, and many are fleeing persecution in their home countries. Many are woven into the fabric of our communities. Others have just arrived in our country, seeking asylum.  

Yet our government is treating all of them like dangerous people. They are languishing in prison-like conditions. Nobody should be treated this way.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees people in deportation proceedings the right to a lawyer at their own expense, and a full and fair hearing. But many detained immigrants lack legal representation because they can’t afford it and because most detention centers are geographically isolated. Without an attorney, they are highly likely to see their rights trampled.

Detained immigrants’ vital need for legal assistance is the driving force behind our decision last year to launch the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), which enlists and trains volunteer lawyers to provide free legal representation to detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast. Immigrants who have access to legal orientation programs are more likely to be referred to programs like SIFI.

Access to counsel is important. Immigrants with counsel are 10.5 times as likely to succeed in their cases as those who represent themselves. Once released from detention, detainees with lawyers are nearly 20 times more likely to prevail in their cases than those who represent themselves. Further, people with lawyers are almost seven times as likely to be released from detention centers as those without the help of a lawyer.

Without an attorney, it is highly unlikely that detained immigrants will obtain relief, even if they are entitled to it by law.

Instead of withdrawing the thin legal lifeline that the federal government has extended to detained immigrants, the government should be doing all it can to ensure that immigrants know whether they are eligible for relief so they can make an informed decision about how to proceed.

Keeping immigrants uninformed and in the dark about their options serves no one except an administration with an agenda to railroad vulnerable individuals out of our country by refusing to provide them with basic information and access to the legal process that is a cornerstone of our democracy.