WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) – Immigrant advocates are outraged by a U.S. government decision to put on hold a program that helps tens of thousands of immigrants navigate the country’s complex immigration court system.

The $8 million-a-year program that provides legal orientation to immigrants in deportation proceedings is on hold pending review, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees immigration courts.

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This move that came to light this week angered immigrant advocates, who called the assistance a lifeline for asylum seekers and other immigrants fighting deportation without lawyers.

“Every day this program is not in operation puts family unity at risk, harms our communities, and infringes on the right of all people to make informed decisions about their legal claims,” the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice said in a news release.

The program helps more than 50,000 people in immigration detention each year, according to Vera. It was started in 2003.

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Immigrants who can’t afford attorneys or find lawyers to handle their cases for free must represent themselves in their deportation cases. For many, the program is their only source of legal guidance in a complex and overwhelming system.

Advocates hold group sessions with immigrants in detention to provide an overview of deportation proceedings and also offer individual case orientation.

The program helps immigrants make more informed decisions and helps complete cases more quickly, according to the immigration courts’ website.

The immigration courts face a tremendous backlog of more than 600,000 cases, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

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