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Legal Program For Detained Immigrants Has Arizona Roots

Update April 25, 2018, 3:51 p.m.:
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions backpedaled Wednesday afternoon on a plan to stop a legal program for detained immigrants without a lawyer at the end of April. Officials had planned to pause the federally funded Legal Orientation Program for an audit. With days left before the Legal Orientation Program was scheduled to stop, it is unclear exactly what the announcement will mean for the Florence Project, which faced a $500,000 cut in funding and potential changes of services.

Raul Torres shoveled sand in the backyard of an expensive new home north of Tucson.

It was a warm day, and a hard job leveling the ground for a patio. But Torres was happy in his work. He wasn’t thinking about being back in Honduras, which he had to flee suddenly. 

“A police officer threatened me because he found out I was in a relationship with his son,” Torres said in Spanish.

Torres bounced around Mexico for a bit. Then he heard the United States welcomes people in the LGBTQ community. Torres got caught jumping the border, and spent about a year locked up.

“In detention, I felt alone,” he said.

Torres recently won his asylum case. But he’s not sure it would have worked out, if the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project hadn’t helped him.

“I could have been deported and killed in Honduras,” he said.

The sometimes life and death stakes of immigration cases were what led to the founding of the Florence Project almost 30 years ago.

The United States currently has backlog of immigration cases approaching 700,000. Citing a need for financial oversight, the Trump administration has chosen to suspend a national program that grew from the model created by the Florence Project. Advocates say the Legal Orientation Program has been proven to make the system more efficient and less costly.

"I could have been deported and killed in Honduras." — Raul Torres, U.S. asylum-seeker

Unlike criminal cases, the government does not have to pay for a lawyer for someone in immigration court. Most people held in immigration detention in Arizona go through the system alone.

In the 1980s, an immigration judge in Arizona worried that people who didn’t have an attorney, but did have a legitimate right to stay in the U.S., were being sent home to die.

“So the system was weighing heavily on the judge’s conscience because he didn’t think it was right,” said attorney Chris Brelje.

Backed by a Phoenix law firm, Brelje answered the judge’s call for more pro bono attorneys, and founded the Florence Project.

“My first year out there, I found several individuals who were U.S. citizens in deportation proceedings,” he said.

Over time, the Florence Project invented a system to teach people how to represent themselves in immigration court. It developed crash-courses on how the legal process works, helped people with legitimate cases and gave sobering advice to those who didn’t.

“I think the project, over the years, has blossomed,” Brelje said.

The result was extra grease on the wheels of justice, and a model that led to a national roll-out of the Legal Orientation Program in 2003.

The federal government will suspend the Legal Orientation Program offered at 38 immigrant detention facilities as of April 30, 2018, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. The model for the program came from the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, which was founded in 1989 in Arizona, and will lose about $500,000 in funding. (Source: Vera Institute of Justice)

“Why not have some efficiency in the process, save the taxpayers some money, and at the same time do justice for those who have a right to stay,” Brelje said.

As legal director, Laura St. John works in the project’s headquarters in Florence. Her handful of attorneys work with thousands of people held in Florence and Eloy on any given day. St. John got about three weeks’ notice the Florence Project will lose about $500,000 to help pay salaries, when the Legal Orientation Program stops as of April 30.

“It’s hard to understate how profound of an effect this will have on our project,” she said.

The Legal Orientation Program will pause while an audit is done because there’s only been one review in 15 years, the methodology was unorthodox and taxpayers need to know what they get for $6 million, according to an official with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The program has already been proven to save about $18 million, St. John said.

“The majority of the savings that are created through the project are because people move through the court system more efficiently, and spend less time in detention,” she said.

Halting the Legal Orientation Program will also have an impact on immigration judges, who now face quotas, and the growing backlog of cases, according to St. John.

“People will be wrongly deported to countries where they may face extreme danger,” she said.

Raul Torres wasn’t deported to Honduras. Instead, he spent a recent Friday arranging concrete tile as the floor of the patio at the new home north of Tucson.

His version of the American Dream is simple: own a car and a home one day. It’s possible, if he saves. His job already lets him do things he could not do in Honduras.

“Buy clothes and food,” he said.

Detention took a mental and physical toll on Torres. Without the Florence Project, he might have given up his case and been sent back to face the police officer who threatened to kill him. Instead, he got due process. And though the Florence Project is working to make sure it can still help people like Torres beyond the end of April, it’s unclear exactly what services will look like.

Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.