Seattle Judge Rules Justice Department Can’t Limit Legal Assistance to Immigrants

In siding with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the ruling also prevents the department from issuing cease-and-desist letters to similar organizations around the country.
Seattle Immigrant  Rights.jpg

A Northwest Immigrant Rights Project client, Iliana (right), with her family.

Photo by NWIRP executive director Jorge L. Barón. 

On Wednesday, an immigrant rights group scored a victory that could help unrepresented immigrants throughout the country. A Seattle federal judge temporarily blocked a U.S. Department of Justice order prohibiting the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project from offering limited legal assistance to immigrants facing deportation. The Wednesday ruling also prevents the department from issuing cease-and-desist letters to organizations that provide similar services around the country.

The department letter issued last month stated that the organization—a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides legal representation, advice, and education on immigration to low-income people—could only provide formal legal representation of immigrants in court. Although NWIRP does provide direct legal services for those who can’t afford an attorney, most of their work includes providing limited legal assistance, like helping people fill out green card and asylum applications or briefing immigrants on their legal rights.

The group helps about 10,000 immigrants a year, but thousands of them would be deprived of help if the order was upheld, said NWIRP Executive Director Jorge L. Barón. So in response to the cease-and-desist letter, NWIRP filed a federal lawsuit against the department on May 8, saying that it was a violation of the group’s First Amendment rights to “free speech, to free assembly, and to petition the government.”

Unlike in criminal cases, immigrants facing deportation aren’t guaranteed a public defender, according to the pro-immigration nonprofit the American Immigration Council. That’s where groups like NWIRP step in to provide legal services. According to Barón, NWIRP is the only resource for detainees at the private immigration prison Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington.

Immigrants facing deportation aren’t guaranteed a public defender.

But NWIRP doesn’t have enough staff to offer full legal representation for all of the detainees seeking help at the detention center. Barón said the group is only able to provide direct representation for a small percentage of deportation cases. In most cases, NWIRP can only offer advice and help immigrants fill out applications.

Access to direct representation increases a person’s chances of remaining in the country. According to a national American Immigration Council study, immigrants facing deportation who are represented by legal council are nearly 5 times more likely to obtain relief—like asylum status—than those without representation.

Barón said that he would like the group to be able to offer full legal representation to everyone in immigration court, but that it would be untenable. “There should be a right to appointed attorneys for people so they have a full attorney, but that doesn’t exist. So we’re in this situation where we’re having to play triage,” Baron said. He likened the limited legal services provided by NWIRP to the emergency aid administered by a doctor during a natural disaster. In that scenario, he said, the department’s order is like telling a doctor not to care for severely injured patients unless they can provide full assistance.

For those who are fortunate enough to be granted an attorney through the organization, the help plays a critical role in allowing them to stay in the country.

The department’s order is like telling a doctor not to care for severely injured patients.

Liz (who asked that her full name not to be used to protect her identity) wasn’t planning on staying long when, from Mexico, she first visited her mom in Seattle in 2006. But soon after she arrived, her mother left her stepfather, and Liz, her mother, and her little brother ended up in a women’s shelter. Liz was 18 years old at the time, barely spoke English, her visa was about to expire, and she couldn’t afford an attorney. So a social worker at the shelter told her about NWIRP, which provided her with an attorney and helped her fill out an application for a green card.

“All of the support from day one to the last day was amazingly overwhelming, in a positive way,” Liz said.

Within a year she was granted a green card. Now Liz has a degree from Seattle University and owns a home. She says that she wouldn't have been able to accomplish any of this without NWIRP's assistance.

In addition to the formal and informal legal services it provides to immigrants like Liz, NWIRP also advocates for immigrant rights. In March, the organization filed an updated class action lawsuit that is currently pending against the Trump administration’s executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

Barón says that the group has seen an outpouring of support from community members and colleagues around the country who are outraged by the department’s order. Ahead of the Wednesday ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Jones, several immigrant rights groups filed supporting briefs defending NWIRP’s work.

“We are very pleased with Judge Jones’s ruling and particularly with the fact that this decision will have a nationwide impact so that other nonprofit organizations around the country will continue to [provide] critical services to individuals facing deportation (removal) proceedings,” Barón wrote in an email. “While this is an important victory, we also know this is a preliminary ruling and more work is to be done in this legal case.”

In the meantime, immigrants like Liz will continue receiving the services they need to help them navigate the murky immigration system.

Said Liz, “It sounds like this is just legal help, but ... when you have stable residents, the community becomes more stable.”

This article was funded in part by the Surdna Foundation.