US Reconsidering Legal Program for Detained Immigrants

03 June, 2018

Imer still has pieces of a bullet in his back.

The 43-year-old Mexican immigrant fled the Mexican state of Guerrero more than 20 years ago after he was shot in the back by drug dealers.

Imer asked VOA to use only his first name in this story.

He entered the United States illegally in 1998 and settled in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where he worked in the building trade. Two months ago he was arrested and sent to Pennsylvania's York County Prison.

"I've never committed a crime," he said, as he began to cry. "Now, I don't know what's going to happen to my family if I am deported," he said.

Imer has two American-born children.

Recently, he was among 12 undocumented immigrants sitting in a small room at the detention center. They gathered around a long table to hear a presentation in Spanish about their legal rights.

Fernanda Castillo, a paralegal with the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center, is among the staffers who conduct detainee orientation classes.
Fernanda Castillo, a paralegal with the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center, is among the staffers who conduct detainee orientation classes.

Fernanda Castillo explained the legal defenses open to the detainees. Castillo is with a legal aid group called Pennsylvania Immigration Resources, or PIRC.

"Our main goal is to provide them with, what are their rights, what to expect in immigration court, we go through a couple of defenses to see if they are eligible for something," She also explains how to get out of prison and the rules of voluntary departure.

The U.S. Justice Department indirectly pays for PIRC's class under the Legal Orientation Program (LOP). Created in 2003, the the program gives detained immigrants some understanding of their rights and possible help under U.S. immigration law.

The Vera Institute of Justice administers the program, which costs $8 million a year. The program is carried out by PIRC and other nonprofit groups in more than 30 detention centers nationwide.

Legal orientation program

The orientation class lasts about an hour.

Castillo explained what the detainees could expect during their first appearance in a U.S. immigration court. Most wanted to know about the possibility of the judge approving their temporary release in exchange for a bail payment and a promise to return to the court at a future date.

"Am I eligible?" Castillo said, was the first question. "We get a lot of voluntary departure questions as well...A lot of people will not know the difference between a voluntary departure and a removal order."

Voluntary departure means someone may be able to return legally someday, although usually years later. With removal, there is no chance of returning, as Castillo explained to the class.

PIRC gets $200,000 a year for the information classes and one-on-one meetings it holds with detainees at the York County Prison.

Mary Studzinski, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration Center, at her office in York, Pennsylvania.
Mary Studzinski, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration Center, at her office in York, Pennsylvania.

PIRC Executive Director Mary Studzinski says the classes have a direct effect on the immigration court process.

"It allows someone when they're done with that class to have a better sense of whether they have any hope of staying."

She explained that many illegal immigrants choose voluntary departure once they understand their rights. She said this helps to lower the number of court cases.

This saves the U.S. Treasury Department almost $18 million a year, according to a 2012 Vera Institute study. Last year, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) report endorsed the program, saying it helps detainees complete their cases faster.

Yet Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he has concerns about it. Earlier this year, he suspended money for the program until there is a review. But reacting to congressional pressure, Sessions later told Senators that financing would continue as the program is reviewed.

The judge's job

A Justice Department official later told VOA that it is time for a new study. The official said the program tells detainees information that the immigration judge also tells them.

But PIRC's Studzinski says there is no comparison. While some judges are more methodical than others, "I've seen it done in less than five minutes and they certainly don't take an hour...So if you ask me if a judge's advisal is the same thing as a legal orientation, I would say no. Do I think advisals are important? Yes, they absolutely should remain in place but they are in no way a substitute for the Legal Orientation Program."

Studzinski adds that PIRC this year will help 2,600 detainees, a much larger number than two years ago. Many of the new detainees have lived in U.S. communities for 10 or more years and never committed a crime.

Imer is hoping to ask for asylum.

During the recent PIRC orientation class, Imer said he had paid a lawyer $3,000 but had not heard from him in the two months he has been in prison. PIRC later found out the man was not a lawyer. The group is now trying to find a real lawyer for Imer.

I'm Susan Shand.

Bill Rodgers wrote this story for VOANews. Susan Shand adapted his report for Learning English. The editor was George Grow.


Words in This Story

commit v. to carry out

deportv. to force (a person who is not a citizen) to leave a country; to expel

eligibleadj. able to be chosen for something : able to do or receive something

departure n. the act of leaving a place

orientationn. the process of giving people training and information about a new job, situation

bail n. an amount of money given to a court to allow a prisoner to leave jail and return later for a trial

endorsev. to publicly or officially say that you support or approve of something

review – n. an examination; a study

accordingadv. as stated by or in