Over the last two decades, a bipartisan Congress has renewed funding for a program launched under President George W. Bush that allows attorneys to go into immigration detention centers and educate detainees about how the deeply complex immigration court system works. A week ago, the Department of Justice announced that the $6 million program would be shut down.
For the immigrants occupying the 1,575 beds at Tacoma's Northwest Immigration Detention Center, that means less information for lawyers and the public about who immigration officials arrest.
Starting next month, local attorneys for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), which is partially funded by the Legal Orientation Program (LOP), fear they will have far less access to those detained by ICE in Tacoma.
The way the program works is that attorneys funded by the program hold classes four to five times a week for new detainees on how to navigate immigration court. Detainees have the option of attending the classes, but it's through this program that organizations like NWIRP learn about who ICE picks up. Through classes, organizations can then meet detainees and refer them out to pro bono legal representation, which is not guaranteed in the immigration court system.
According to NWIRP directing attorney Tim Warden-Hertz, NWIRP serves 3,000 to 4,000 detainees every year through the program.
"Come May 1, we won't have information about people at the detention center except what people are giving us," Warden-Hertz said. "That's going to be a really important piece moving forward."
It was through the Legal Orientation Program, for example, that Warden-Hertz learned about Chong Kim, an Iraq war veteran and greencard holder who was detained at the Northwest Immigration Detention Center last year. Kim was eventually released.
But the LOP hasn't only benefitted detainees. It's received bipartisan support from conservatives, Warden-Hertz says, because it makes the immigration court system more efficient overall. According to a program evaluation report from 2012, educating detained immigrants about how the court system works saved the Department of Justice $12 million in avoided court delays and longer detentions.
Last week, however, the DOJ's Executive Office for Immigration Review said it was suspending the program to "conduct efficiency reviews which have not taken place in six years.”
But immigration judges themselves say the program is critical to the function of the courts. The president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, the judges' union, called the decision to end the program "absolutely mind-boggling."
As for the groups across the country like NWIRP, whose budgets rely on funding sources like the Legal Orientation Program, May 1 represents a scary new reality.
"We're not going to close our office here because of this," Warden-Hertz told The Stranger. "But it will significantly impact our ability to do the same kind of orientation work."