Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed course on suspending a legal advice program for undocumented immigrants, saying he has ordered the resumption of the program pending a review of its effectiveness.
Sessions announced the move at the opening of a hearing before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Justice Department, saying he made the decision at the request of Congress, which has consistently appropriated money for the program.
At issue is the Legal Orientation Program, created under President George W. Bush in 2003. Unlike in the criminal justice system, immigrants are allowed to have legal counsel but the government is not obligated to provide it, so many undocumented immigrants have no legal help as they argue their case to stay in the US. The program is administered through outside groups and works with nonprofit organizations to provide immigrants with presentations, workshop sessions and referrals to potential pro bono legal services.
Earlier this month the Justice Department decided to suspend the program as it conducted a review. A 2012 audit by the department found, consistent with previous studies, that the program actually reduced the length of immigration court cases and detention, saving the government nearly $18 million.
Sessions told the subcommittee on Wednesday that while he has "previously expressed some concerns about the program," he heard from bipartisan members of the committee that led him to reverse course.
"Out of deference to the committee, I have ordered that there be no pause while that review is conducted," Sessions said. "I look forward to evaluating the findings as are produced and will be in communication with this committee when they are available."
The top Democrat on the committee, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, said she was "pleased" to hear that from Sessions but reminded him that the committee still has unanswered questions about the methodology of the review Sessions is conducting.
Advocates and those who work to represent immigrants immediately decried the move when it was announced as a threat to due process rights that could actually make the courts more backlogged, not less.
The move had followed other recent efforts by the Justice Department to, in their words, expedite proceedings in the immigration courts to cut down on the extensive backlog of cases, which result in some immigrants living in the US for years while they await their fate, many of which have similarly been criticized by opponents as a risk to due process rights.
A internal study commissioned by the Justice Department that was made public this week recommended expanding the Legal Orientation Program as a way to make the courts more efficient.