SEATTLE (CN) – A nonprofit that provides free and low-cost legal help sued the Department of Justice this week for ordering it to stop assisting unrepresented immigrants — an order the group calls unconstitutional.
The cease-and-desist notice from the Justice Department says the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project must commit to full legal representation for every immigrant it advises or refrain from giving any legal advice whatsoever.
The Seattle-based nonprofit, aka NWIRP, claims the Justice Department’s order is “a new and novel” — and unconstitutional — interpretation of a 2008 rule designed to prevent victimization of detained immigrants by people who pretend to be attorneys.
The NWIRP provides limited assistance for people in removal proceedings, helping them fill out applications and advising them of their rights. It “provides free and low-cost legal services to more than 10,000 immigrants each year through its 70 staff members and more than 350 volunteer attorneys,” the group says in its May 8 complaint in Federal Court. Co-plaintiff Yuk Man Maggie Cheng is a staff attorney.
The group says it’s impossible to offer legal representation to every immigrant it helps.
“Over the past several weeks, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the individual defendants (collectively, ‘EOIR’) have set out to restrict NWIRP’s ability to offer this assistance. Relying on a new and novel interpretation of its 2008 rule governing attorney misconduct, EOIR now insists on 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. EOIR’s cease-and-desist order to NWIRP 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. EOIR’s interpretation will also deprive otherwise unrepresented immigrants of legal advice they need to understand United States law, and assistance with navigating the immigration court system,” according to the complaint.
The NWIRP says the government’s “vague and overbroad” interpretation of the rule violates the First and Tenth Amendments and will prevent many immigrants from receiving any legal assistance.
Immigrants facing deportation are not provided attorneys and most cannot afford private counsel, the complaint states.
“The cease and desist letter has slammed the door on the only chance hundreds of unrepresented individuals have to receive any legal assistance,” Matt Adams, legal director for NWIRP, said in a statement.
“But we will not be so easily deterred. We are asking the court to protect our rights to advocate on behalf of immigrants, including children and people locked up in immigration detention, who have no other avenues for help.”
NWIRP seeks a temporary restraining order so it can continue to provide services while the case is litigated.
U.S. District Judge Richard Jones will set a date for hearing arguments on the temporary restraining order.
Michele Radosevich with Davis Wright Tremaine filed the complaint on behalf of NWIRP.
The lead defendant is U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.