Imer still has fragments from a bullet in his back. The 43-year-old Mexican immigrant, who asked to be identified only by his first name, fled the Mexican state of Guerrero more than 20 years ago after he was shot in the back by a Mexican drug gang.
He entered the U.S. illegally in 1998 and settled in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where he made a living working in construction. Two months ago he was arrested and put in detention in the York County Prison in south-central Pennsylvania.
“I’ve never committed a crime, not even a traffic ticket,” he said, as he choked up with tears. “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 a dozen detained undocumented immigrants, all from Latin America and dressed in orange prison overalls, sitting at a long table in a small room inside the detention center listening to a presentation in Spanish about their legal options. Fernanda Castillo, a staffer from the Pennsylvania Immigration Resources, or PIRC, explained the legal remedies they might pursue.
“Our main goal is to let them know what are their rights, what to expect in immigration court,” Castillo later told VOA. “We’ll talk about a couple of defenses to see if they are eligible for something and we talk about bond and voluntary departure as well.”
PIRC’s orientation class is indirectly funded by the U.S. Justice Department under the Legal Orientation Program, or LOP. Created in 2003 under the Bush administration, the LOP is aimed at giving detained immigrants some understanding of their rights and possible relief under U.S. immigration law. Administered by the Vera Institute of Justice, the $8 million-a-year program is carried out by PIRC and 17 other nonprofits in more than 30 detention centers from California to Virginia.
Legal orientation program
The orientation class lasts about an hour, as Castillo explained what the detainees could expect when they appear before a U.S. immigration judge. Most wanted to know about getting bail.
“Am I eligible for bond? How low is the bond, how high is the bond,” Castillo said. “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, which can be an excruciating decision.”
Voluntary departure means someone may be able to return legally someday, though usually years later. With removal, there’s no chance, as Castillo explained to the class.
PIRC gets $200,000 a year for the information sessions and one-on-one workshops it conducts at the York County Prison.
PIRC Executive Director Mary Studzinski says the sessions have a direct impact on the immigration court process, now laboring under a backlog of more than 700,000 cases.
“It allows someone when they’re done with that class to have a better sense of whether they have any hope of staying, and if they do, what might be an avenue that they could pursue,” Studzinski told VOA in her office less than 2 kilometers from the prison.
“If you know you have no remedy under law and there’s no way you can stay, then probably your best answer is that, ‘No, your honor, I would like to leave.’ (LOP) has an impact on the courts; it makes the courts more efficient,” she said.
This kind of impact saves the U.S. Treasury almost $18 million a year, according to a 2012 government study of the LOP that included data and other information from the Vera Institute. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) memo last year endorsed the LOP, saying informed detainees complete their cases faster.
Yet U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed concerns about the program. Earlier this year, he suspended funding pending a review. But responding to congressional pressure, Sessions later told a Senate panel last month that funding would continue as the LOP is evaluated.
The judge’s job
A Justice Department spokesperson later told VOA that it is time for a new review.
“We believe the reviews should be done on a more frequent basis,” the spokesperson said. “There’s a question about the (Vera Institute) methodology, and also we maintain that there’s a large overlap between what the LOP does and what the immigration judges do. They (the LOP) explain the rights to the detainees but this is also done by the immigration judges.”
But PIRC’s Studzinski says there’s no comparison. While some judges are more thorough 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 is on track to orient 2,600 detainees, a figure much higher than two years ago.
“The increase we’re seeing is people being swept in from the community who in the previous administration would never have been picked up,” Studzinski said. “These are people who have been in the community for 10, 15, 20 years, who have not violated any laws after entry.”
Like Imer, who is hoping to apply 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 jail. PIRC later found out the “lawyer” was simply a notary. The organization is now working to help Imer find legal representation.