The Nation: “The Airport Lawyers Who Stood Up to Trump Are Under Attack”

by Joseph McKeown

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), a Seattle nonprofit that offers legal aid to immigrants facing deportation and a group that was at the forefront of fighting President Trump’s Muslim travel ban, is facing disciplinary action from Jeff Sessions’s Department of Justice (DOJ). Four weeks ago, the DOJ issued a cease and desist letter demanding that the nonprofit group drop representation of their current clients and shut down their asylum-advisory program. The DOJ accused NWIRP of breaking a rule that was originally created in order to prevent attorney misconduct and protect people from lawyers or “notarios” who take their money, but ultimately drop their case. (We’ve previously written about “notarios” and other scams that immigrants face.)

The DOJ letter states that “NWIRP’s practice of representing aliens before EOIR [Executive Office of Immigration Review] without filing the appropriate Notice of Entry of Appearance form is in violation of federal regulations.” With their letter, the DOJ is attempting to stop a long-standing agreement between immigration officials and non-profit organizations such as the NWIRP that has allowed nonprofits to run asylum-assistance programs without committing to permanent representation on a case that could stretch for years. Since NWIRP does not have the resources to formally represent everyone it advises, it’s a common practice for them and other similar nonprofits to informally guide immigrants on how to file certain legal documents on their own behalf. In other words, according to the DOJ, NWIRP’s attorneys must either “formally represent everyone who comes to the nonprofit for help understanding the US immigration system, or help no one at all.”

In response to the DOJ cease and desist letter, NWIRP filed a lawsuit earlier this month in federal court in Seattle alleging that the DOJ violated their First Amendment constitutional rights to free speech, assembly, and to petition the government by impeding their ability to defend immigrants’ rights. They also allege that the DOJ is infringing upon the State of Washington’s authority to regulate attorneys’ conduct in providing legal services. Matt Adams, the legal director for NWIRP, released a statement explaining that the “cease and desist letter has slammed the door on the only chance hundreds of unrepresented individuals have to receive any legal assistance. But we will not be so easily deterred. We are asking the Court the 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.” Last week, US District Judge Richard Jones, a George W. Bush appointee, granted the organization a temporary restraining order that enables NWIRP to continue to assist immigrants for now.

The outcome of this case will have a wide-ranging impact not only on the lives of thousands of immigrants but also many nonprofit legal aid organizations across the country. Since immigrants have no right to counsel in immigration cases (as immigration offenses are deemed civil violations), and many immigrants cannot afford counsel, they rely on hundreds of nonprofits and attorneys who work pro bono. Having legal representation in an immigration case can make all the difference. According to the Los Angeles Times, estimates suggest that an immigrant facing deportation is about ten times more likely to win their hearing with a lawyer.

Apart from often not having sufficient funds to hire legal representation, many immigrants face additional obstacles in obtaining legal help. Many immigrants are held in detention centers in rural areas sometimes hundreds of miles from urban centers where immigration attorneys are often based, and thus it can be difficult to get representation since there may not be a pro bono network in those areas and attorneys will have to drive hours to see their clients. Additionally, many detained immigrants, ProPublica claims, are also not provided with updated legal materials, ample telephone time, or internet access, and so they are often completely unaware of the fact that they may have a viable legal claim.  

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claims that the geographical locations of these detention centers are often the result of zoning regulations. “ICE is very supportive and very accommodating in terms of individuals who wish to have representation and ensuring that they have the adequate ability to do so,” an ICE spokesperson tells ProPublica. Although detention centers may offer self-help workshops, presentations pertaining to the immigration process, pro bono referrals and consultations, and other legal materials and resources, many immigrants are nevertheless unaware of what legal remedies are available. The Los Angeles Times editorial boards argues: “Forcing someone—often a person without even a rudimentary understanding of English—to navigate this complicated legal terrain with no idea of what the law says, or what remedies might be available, is Kafkaesque”.

In the DOJ cease and desist letter, Jennifer J. Barnes, DOJ’s disciplinary counsel, states that they are merely enforcing a rule meant to protect immigrants: “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.” Others are not convinced that the DOJ has the best interests of immigrants at heart. “When lawyers rushed to the airports this winter to protect our friends, our neighbors, and our Constitution, the people cheered,” the Nation writes. “The Trump administration took offense, and now those lawyers are in their cross hairs.”