An Austin nonprofit will struggle to offer its legal assistance program to immigrant detainees after the Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it would halt millions in grant funding.
Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of American Gateways, the nonprofit that provides those services to three detention centers in Texas, calls the decision “almost unconscionable.”
The programs educate immigrants about their basic legal rights and about the immigration court process. Unlike with criminal cases, immigrant court cases are civil matters and therefore not entitled to legal defense at the government’s expense. Without those programs, Austin immigration attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch said, “They know nothing about the laws. They know zero. Most have been through a pretty harrowing journey and they have no idea what faces them. Without this service, they are not given any information.”
American Gateways serves approximately 20,000 people a year between the two programs. The Legal Orientation Program led by a trained staff member offers basic legal information in a classroom-style setting in detention centers, while the Immigration Court Helpdesk provides information to non-detained, non-citizens in immigration court about court procedures, available legal options and other relevant topics.
“The programs insured that our team of attorneys and legal professionals were on the ground, providing basic services for thousands of the most vulnerable in our community,” Lightsey said in a post on the American Gateways’ Facebook page. “Those affected include asylum seekers and survivors of violence and human trafficking, as well as countless Central Texas families who have seen a loved one apprehended and carried away by ICE.”
American Gateways is one of 18 nonprofits across the country that provide those programs. Its annual grant for the programs totaled $750,000, an amount that will be hard to raise through donors once the federal funding is ceased.
“It’s going to be a real challenge for every single organization that had this funding,” said Lightsey. “But we’re going to do everything in our power to see that this information gets to those who so desperately need it. It’s not something we’re just going to walk away from, even if we have to scale back dramatically what we’re doing.”
The effective elimination of the legal orientation program further isolates people already living in geographically remote detention centers, a situation that concerns Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership.
“Further restricting access to these facilities and isolating people in detention does grave harm to the interest of justice and to individuals,” he said. He said Grassroots Leadership’s regular visits to detainees at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor led to an FBI investigation of sexual assault claims at the center.
Since the Trump administration took office, nonprofits that serve immigrants and refugees say they have faced an onslaught of challenges, from ICE raids that forced people into hiding to threats to end asylum programs and more.
“It’s been a demoralizing time,” said Lincoln-Goldfinch, “I think one day we’ll look back on this time and remember what a low moment this was. But now more than ever, social justice lawyers need to stay in the fight. “
Giving City Austin
This article is published through a partnership with Giving City Austin, which reports on the area’s nonprofit community. Read more Giving City stories at GivingCityAustin.com.