WASHINGTON — A Justice Department review of a program aimed at helping detained immigrants navigate the country's complex immigration court system has found that people in the program had longer detention stays and were less likely to get lawyers than people not in it.
But the nonprofit group that manages the program said cases are significantly more likely to be completed faster and called on Congress to investigate before adopting the results. It said the Justice Department review had "insurmountable" flaws, including that it failed to include pending cases, and that skewed results.
The Legal Orientation Program began in 2003 with the idea that access to legal counsel would help cases move faster and proceedings become fairer. The Justice Department, which oversees the country's immigration court system, manages the program through a contract with the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice.
The program helps more than 50,000 people in immigration detention each year, the institute says.
The review , obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday, found that detained immigrants in the program were more likely to be allowed to stay in the country when their cases were finished but the majority of those both in and out of the program were ordered deported.
Immigrants who can't afford attorneys or find lawyers to handle their cases for free must represent themselves. For many, the program is their only source of legal guidance in an overwhelming system.
The report found 8.25 percent of participants detained for their proceedings were granted relief compared with 6.33 percent of those not in the program. And 50 percent of immigrants in the program had legal counsel compared with 55 percent of those not in the program, the report found.
Advocates hold group sessions with immigrants in detention to provide an overview of deportation proceedings and to offer individual case orientation. The program is designed to help immigrants make more informed decisions and to complete cases more quickly, according to the immigration courts' website.
The Vera Institute said the Justice Department analysis of case length didn't take into account factors that may impact cases, such as what type of relief is being sought and what judge is hearing a case.
"It is well documented that the Legal Orientation Program has profoundly improved our immigration system," the institute said in a statement.
Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said at an April Senate committee hearing on border security that the program had a proven track record of increased efficiency.
The immigration courts face a backlog of more than 600,000 cases. But the report, by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, found that program participants had slightly more hearings and were about as likely as those not involved in the program to have cases completed. The program costs about $8 million annually, and program participants on average spent 25 more days in detention, at a cost to taxpayers of $3,100 more per person, compared with those not in the program, the report says.
The review began in November. In April, Justice Department officials announced the program would be on hold while the review was completed, but they reversed the decision after an uproar by immigrant advocates.
There will be two other phases of the review, and immigration officials said they hope to get it completed by September and October. No decision on whether the program will continue has been made.
The report on Wednesday dealt specifically with a legal orientation program for detained immigrants and did not address other orientation programs provided to other groups, such as children.
The review was completed by immigration review officials not involved in the program, plus an independent contractor, according to the report. It scrutinized data from 150,000 immigrants in the program and 830,000 hearings, and it compared that with data from about 350,000 people who were not in the program and 1.5 million hearings.
President Donald Trump's administration has made curbing immigration a top priority, and Trump, a Republican, has railed against the court system.
"We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country," he wrote in a June tweet. "When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came."