SEATTLE — The U.S. Justice Department has ordered a Seattle-based immigrant rights group to halt a large part of the work it does to advise immigrants of their legal rights and help them fill out paperwork — a demand that the organization says would force thousands of people to go without legal help in deportation cases.
The nonprofit Northwest Immigrant Rights Project sued the Justice Department Monday in federal court in Seattle in an effort to block the order. The group says the Justice Department’s demand violates its First Amendment rights to free speech, assembly and to petition the government.
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which recently has challenged President Donald Trump’s travel ban in court, helps provide free legal representation to more than 200 immigrants facing deportation every year.
However, it also provides lesser help, such as assistance with asylum applications, to hundreds more, and it holds clinics to help immigrants learn about their legal rights.
In a cease-and-desist letter sent last month, the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review told the group it cannot provide legal help unless it undertakes formal representation of a client. It cited a rule adopted in 2008 and designed in part to curtail attorney misconduct and so-called “notario” fraud, in which people unauthorized to practice law advertised themselves as able to help immigrants obtain lawful status.
“By holding attorneys accountable for their conduct, this rule makes it possible for EOIR to impose disciplinary sanctions on attorneys who do not provide adequate representation to their clients,” disciplinary counsel Jennifer J. Barnes wrote in the letter.
Matt Adams, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s legal director, said that while other immigrant rights groups around the country provide similar services, he was not aware of any others that had received cease-and-desist letters from the Department of Justice. Several planned to file supportive briefs as part of his group’s lawsuit, he said.
After the rule was adopted, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project met with the administrator of the local immigration court, which allowed the organization to meet the rule’s requirements by adding a note to any applications or motions it worked on saying the documents were prepared with its assistance, Adams said.
The DOJ’s letter says that’s not good enough. The Executive Office for Immigration Review, charged with enforcing federal immigration law, did not immediately return an e-mail seeking comment.
The DOJ’s interpretation of the rule “will deprive thousands of immigrants — including asylum seekers and unaccompanied children — of the chance to consult with a NWIRP lawyer to evaluate their potential claims for legal residence,” the group’s lawsuit says.
In its lawsuit, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project said that given constraints on its resources, it can’t formally represent all of the people whose cases it screens.
Doing so can require the filing of motions or the investigation of facts in the case, something its staff of 70 and network of 350 volunteer attorneys can’t handle, given the backlog of nearly 9,000 immigration cases pending in Seattle and Tacoma, the lawsuit says.