U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL,11) says immigrants who are detained in the United States should receive a basic overview of their legal rights when they arrive in custody.
"Every day, thousands of immigrants are placed in detention without the full knowledge of why they're there, what their rights are or how immigration courts work," Foster said at a discussion on the topic in Aurora Thursday afternoon. "There are no requirements that detention centers or jails that house immigration detainees provide immigrants with this information ... Providing immigration detainees legal advice saves detention costs, and it's the right thing to do."
Last week, Foster and U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL,21) introduced the Immigrant Detainee Legal Rights Act, H.R. 3914, which is designed to ensure that undocumented immigrants are not kept in the dark about their rights. The bill would set up an "Office of Legal Access Programs", which would work to help educate and provide information to detained immigrants about their rights.
As part of the effort, detained immigrants would also receive assistance "in making informed and timely decisions regarding their removal and eligibility for relief from removal."
Foster said the measure would increase efficiency and trim costs associated with immigration proceedings. The legislation is a small part of, but not a substitute for, comprehensive immigration reform, the congressman said.
"In a situation of gridlock in our nation's Capitol, maybe a small victory is the most we can hope for, and this will not be a small victory for the people that are helped by it," Foster stressed.
Foster and four other members of the Illinois delegation, including U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL,4), Mike Quigley (D-IL,5), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL,9) and Brad Schneider (D-IL,10), are bringing immigration reform advocates as their guests to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday to put pressure on Congress to pass a comprehensive bill.
Meanwhile, only 25 out of 250 U.S. detention centers provide any legal orientation programs for detainees. None of the facilities with such programs are located in the Midwest, Foster said.
As part of the proposed legislation, the U.S. Attorney General would have to develop and implement plans to set up these legal programs in all detention centers and jails that house immigrants. The programs would have to present information about immigrants' legal rights in English as well as the five most common languages of detainees at a given facility.
Under the measure, the secretary of Homeland Security is tasked with setting up procedures to guarantee that legal orientation programs are available for all detained immigrants within five days of their being in custody. Also, detainees would have to be told about immigration hearing procedures as well as their rights related to those hearings.
The congressman said he hopes the savings that would come with streamlining "inefficient" immigration court processes could help sway more support for the bill in the GOP-led House, where Republican leaders have been ignoring comprehensive immigration legislation.
"I think it should be hard for any member of Congress to go back to his or her constituents and say, 'I walked away from a proposal that will save you taxpayer money,'" Foster stressed. "If you believe in good government, and you have a test program that works, that saves the taxpayer money, that increases the effectiveness of government, it seems like everyone should be in favor of it who believes in good government at all."
At Thursday's discussion, Foster explained that protecting legal rights for immigrant detainees would help ease a backlogged and overburdened immigration court system. He pointed to a study from the Vera Institute of Justice, which showed that immigrants who have participated in a legal orientation program see their immigration court cases processed 13 days shorter, on average, than those who did not. He also cited research from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which found that for every $2 million spent on legal orientation programs, $20 million is saved in detention costs.
Foster said the funding stream currently from the Department of Justice for legal orientation programs would be expanded, but the savings would come through the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Keren Zwick, managing attorney for the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), which has a detention project that services the Midwest, said the organization does not currently receive federal funding to do "Know Your Rights" presentations at facilities in the region. NIJC has to recruit volunteers from area universities to help. But even still, it can take weeks for the organization to provide the information to each individual client or detainee, she explained.
Expanding legal orientation programs nationally "wouldn't only improve efficiencies for us, but it would also really serve the detained population."
"We hear repeatedly from detainees who have gone to court several times asking for continuances while they're looking for a lawyer," she said. "They don't know what to do, and they don't have an access to someone who can tell them what their options are ... They'll spend maybe weeks or even months in facilities waiting for someone to tell them what to do."
The bill has six other original co-sponsors, including Illinois U.S. Reps. Quigley and Schakowsky. The others include U.S. Reps. Rush Holt (D-NJ,12), Paul Tonko (D-NY,20), Marc Veasey (D-TX,33) and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA,47).
The legislation has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.