Judge Pauses Federal Rule to Thwart Legal Aid for Immigrants

SEATTLE (CN) – A federal judge in Seattle has blocked nationwide enforcement of a rule to prevent nonprofits from providing legal assistance to detained immigrants.

U.S. District Judge Richard Jones found the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and other legal assistance groups would suffer “significant harm” if the Justice Department enforced a 2008 rule designed to prevent victimization of detained immigrants by people who pretend to be attorneys.

The group sued May 8, after receiving a cease-and-desist notice from the Justice Department saying it must commit to full legal representation for every immigrant it advises or refrain from giving any legal advice whatsoever.

Calling the order “a new and novel” interpretation of the rule, the group says it violates attorneys’ First and 10th Amendment rights and would prevent many immigrants from receiving any legal assistance.

At a Wednesday hearing, Jones ordered the Justice Department to stop enforcing the rule against the Seattle-based group and nationwide, saying the government had threatened to send similar cease-and-desist notices to other nonprofits providing legal aid to immigrants.

Jones said the rule as applied to nonprofits would provide a “chilling effect” on their mission to help detained immigrants.

He asked Justice Department attorney Victor Mercado-Santana whether it would violate the rule if someone asked an attorney for help filling out a form.

“It may not,” Mercado-Santana replied.

That puts the attorney in an “awkward position,” Jones said, adding, “How is a lawyer supposed to know?”

Mercado-Santana answered, “Lawyers know what providing legal advice is.”

The immigration group’s attorney Jamie Allen, with Davis Wright Tremaine, said the government’s response left her clients “further confused” about what is permitted under the rule.

A temporary restraining order will remain in effect until a request for preliminary injunction is decided.

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