Suspension Of Legal Orientation Program To Leave Immigrant Detainees ‘In The Dark’

Last year the legal orientation program served some 6,100 detainees in the Houston area

Foreign nationals are arrested during a targeted enforcement operation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement aimed at immigration fugitives, re-entrants and at-large criminal aliens in Los Angeles on Feb. 7, 2017.

Understanding the immigrant court system is complicated even for the highly educated, according to Elizabeth Sanchez Kennedy, Director of Immigration Legal Services at YMCA of Greater Houston.

“It’s a very, very complex system that most people don’t understand,” said Sanchez Kennedy, “much less someone who hasn’t even been in the system or educated in the system.”

Since 2007, her organization has offered “know your rights” legal orientation programs at the three immigration detention centers in the Houston area.

Now the future of these programs is hanging in the balance.  

The Department of Justice announced this week the program will be temporarily halted on April 30th.  Sanchez Kennedy said the suspension will cut her funding by $730,000. 

“Cutting off that service to immigrants detained in the Houston area is just like turning off the light. They will not have access to this information,” said Sanchez Kennedy.  

The legal orientation program is the only source of information on the immigration court system currently offered in Houston’s detention centers. The legal orientation program offers an educational presentation with basic legal information. Detainees are also offered assistance with legal forms and referrals to pro bono attorneys. 

Legal professionals have come out against the decision to halt the program.

“I am disappointed and concerned that the Department of Justice has halted funding for programs that provide accurate, basic information on legal rights to those being held in detention centers,” President of Houston Bar Association Alistair Dawson told Houston Public Media in a statement.

“There are several centers in the Houston area, and I believe it is important to the administration of justice that detainees are informed of their due process rights,” he said. 

In a statement, the American Bar Association also came out against the decision, saying the program, “has a track record of effectively saving the government millions of dollars a year in immigration court and detention costs.”

In 2012, a study of the legal orientation program showed that it saved the Department of Justice nearly $18 million by making immigration courts more efficient.

Last year the legal orientation program served 6,100 detainees in the Houston area.

The Vera Institute of Justice estimates that nationwide 50,000 people benefit from the program each year





Elizabeth Trovall

Immigration Reporter

Elizabeth Trovall is an immigration reporter for Houston Public Media. She joined the News 88.7 team after several years abroad in Santiago, Chile, where she reported on business, energy, politics and culture. Trovall's work has been featured on Here and Now, Latino USA, Texas Standard and Only A Game. She...

More Information