Montgomery County is one of Maryland’s most diverse and populous jurisdictions, where on average three out of ten residents were not born in the United States. Council members are currently debating whether to implement a controversial proposal that would allocate nearly $400,000 from the county’s general fund to a non-profit that provides legal funds to immigrants in detention. The program would only be made available to Montgomery County residents who are facing deportation, have a household income well below the poverty line, and have not been convicted of any major crimes. Despite these limitations, as well as the county’s significant percentage of immigrants, council members are already expecting objections to the proposed plan.
Hans Riemer, the Montgomery County Council President, defended the proposal by pointing out that “‘the federal government is targeting our residents and our communities’”, and emphasizing the need to respond accordingly. Claudia Cubas, the litigation director of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, the nonprofit in question, noted that it is the county’s duty to protect its diversity by allowing immigrants the right to due process. The issue is scheduled for debate at a public hearing on May 1st and, if passed, would join a series of similar efforts, including statewide programs for legal representation for immigrants facing deportation hearings in New York and California. In Maryland alone, Baltimore and Prince George’s County have already joined the SAFE Cities Network, which also provides publicly funded lawyers to immigrants in 11 jurisdictions.
While Montgomery County is seeking to provide legal assistance to immigrants facing possible deportation, the Department of Justice is attempting to do just the opposite. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is taking steps to end a federally funded Legal Orientation Program that was put into effect under President Bush in 2003, one which seeks to educate immigrants about their rights and options in court in both English and Spanish. In a memo published in November of last year, the Justice Department praised the initiative for providing assistance to all parties in detainee-deportation cases, and even provided access to lawyers and paralegals from the program to an additional 30 detention centers across the country. Now, according to another government memo, the DOJ is suspending the program to order to review its effectiveness.
Research into the initiative’s effectiveness at the time of the November memo showed that its beneficiaries were more likely overall to have legal representation and complete their cases more efficiently than other detainees who were not affiliated with the program. Although the program costs 8 million dollars a year, it saves the government millions more in detention costs by helping immigrants avoid unnecessary delays, according to the Institute of Justice. It is often the only assistance that immigrants are given outside the court, and provides them with access to attorneys and paralegals that otherwise would be impossible to afford.
In defending their decision to end the program, federal officials say that it is unnecessary since immigration judges already inform immigrants of their rights while in court. It is worth noting, however, that the Justice Department under President Trump has already expressed concerns about the backlog of immigration cases in the federal justice system, and has even placed quotas on federal immigration judges to complete a certain number of cases a year. If that is the case, then the department’s decision to end a program shown to make deportation cases more efficient calls into question their true motives for suspending the initiative.