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Seattle lawyers sue for the right to help immigrants

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KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

When people face deportation at a court in Seattle or Tacoma, and they don’t have an attorney, the immigration judge will often drop a name: The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

The group’s legal staff provides free help filling out forms and translating documents – even if an attorney can’t take on the full case.

On April 5, the U.S. Department of Justice sent NWIRP a letter to cease and desist with this assistance.

“It’s thrown an immediate wrench into our ability to represent people,” said Matt Adams, NWIRP’s legal director.

On Monday, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a federal lawsuit, claiming the DOJ order violates the attorneys’ first amendment rights to advise potential clients.

The DOJ letter warns NWIRP that the group will face sanctions if it continues to assist with filings in deportation cases, unless an attorney formally signs on for the full case.

“And of course what that means is that the vast majority of people will be left without any legal assistance,” Adams said. “It’s simply mind-boggling to think this is the direction the government is going.”

Every year, Adams says his group screens roughly 1,000 potential clients facing deportation and offers them limited assistance, from a brief consultation to help with a visa application. But NWIRP can only afford to fully represent a small fraction of these clients partly because many are seeking asylum, which tends to be a complicated and lengthy process.

According to the Justice Department letter, NWIRP is violating a federal rule created in 2008 aimed at “holding attorneys accountable for their conduct” if they don’t provide adequate representation.

NWIRP addressed this rule in the lawsuit, indicating they agreed on a convention in the local immigration courts that has allowed lawyers to continue offering limited legal assistance as long as they clearly disclose that assistance to the court. Adams said the immigration courts have raised no concerns.

Now, the lawsuit states, the DOJ order presents "a Hobson's choice: either NWIRP must commit to full legal representation of every immigrant in removal proceedings it presently assists (which is plainly impossible), or NWIRP must refrain from providing them any form of legal assistance—not even a brief consultation."

The lawsuit seeks to immediately halt the cease and desist order and allow NWIRP to continue offering assistance in deportation cases, including for asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors.

According to NWIRP’s complaint, there were approximately 8,882 pending cases in the Seattle and Tacoma immigration courts as of May 4.

Wtih 70 people on staff, The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project is the main provider of free and low-cost legal aid for people who face deportation in Washington State. Adams said he’s contacted immigration attorneys across the country, but none have reported similar cease and desist orders. Yet many will watch this case closely, since the Justice Department’s interpretation of this rule could potentially cripple free legal services for immigrants nationwide.

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