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Justice Department decides not to halt legal assistance program for detained immigrants

Citing a congressional request, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday said the department won't end a program that helps federally detained immigrants obtain legal advice and other resources.

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A popular legal assistance program for federally detained immigrants won’t be shuttered after all.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced earlier this month that the Justice Department would end the Legal Orientation Program on April 30 while it evaluated the program's cost-effectiveness. On Wednesday, he told a congressional panel that the department would leave the program — which helps immigrants in at least a dozen Texas detention centers — intact at the request of Congress while making clear the department still planned to conduct an audit. 

"I look forward to evaluating the findings," Sessions told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Justice Department, according to CNN, noting he would report back to the panel. 

Launched in 2003, the orientation program — overseen by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice — helps detainees navigate a complex immigration system and secure pro bono legal services. It also regularly conducts campaigns for immigrants facing possible deportation, aimed at informing them of their legal rights.

Those campaigns reach more than 30,000 detainees scattered among a dozen of the state's many immigration detention centers, according to the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative.

Kate Vickery, the executive director of the legal services organization, said the reversal is welcome news but also that the program isn't necessarily off the chopping block.

“While this is wonderful news today, we worry that we will be facing the same situation in the future if the DOJ’s audit does not support the continuation of the program,” she said in a statement. “As a community, we need to recognize the importance of supporting programs that provide due process and information for immigrants facing deportation.”

Jackie Watson, an Austin-based immigration attorney, said when the program was halted that even the most conservative immigration judges lauded its effectiveness.

Even though the program didn't provide all detainees with a pro bono attorney, she said it offered other assistance like help with paperwork or translations, along with basic workshops on how the immigration courts work.

While judges may ultimately decide to send someone home, at least "they know they've given that person a better chance" with such a program in place, Watson said.

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