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Immigrant rights group sues DOJ after move to block legal aid

The following is from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project:

SEATTLE (May 9, 2017) — Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a lawsuit Monday in federal district court challenging an order from the Department of Justice instructing NWIRP to “cease and desist” from assisting unrepresented immigrants in deportation proceedings. The DOJ letter purports to rely on agency regulations issued in 2008 that require attorneys to enter a formal notice of appearance if they provide any legal assistance to persons in deportation proceedings. However, the immigration courts do not allow limited appearances, so once an attorney files a notice of appearance they are obligated to take over full representation in the deportation proceedings.

There is no right to a public defender or appointed counsel in immigration court. Consequently, the majority of people do not have attorneys to represent them in those proceedings. Given the resulting grave need for legal representation and NWIRP’s limited resources, the cease-and-desist order threatens to preclude the majority of people in deportation proceedings in Washington state from receiving any legal assistance in their cases.

For more than 30 years, NWIRP has been providing community presentations, workshops, and individual consultations to help people in deportation proceedings understand their rights and identify defenses from deportation and types of immigration relief. Last year alone, NWIRP screened more than 1,000 people with cases pending before the immigration tribunals, and more than 600 persons seeking to apply for asylum. While NWIRP is able to provide full representation in some of those cases, the majority of people are left without an attorney.

In response, NWIRP has historically provided limited assistance to help those individuals fill out applications for asylum, cancellation of removal, family visas; file motions to reopen removal proceedings, change venue, and to terminate proceedings; and advise them on defenses, forms of relief, and the procedural requirements for moving forward on cases. But now the cease-and-desist order has caused a dramatic and immediate impact in the way NWIRP is able to serve hundreds of unrepresented persons.

The lawsuit, filed by NWIRP and the cooperating law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, asserts that the DOJ order violates NWIRP attorneys’ constitutional right to free speech, impeding their ability to promote and defend the rights of immigrants in Washington state. In addition, the suit charges that the regulation unlawfully interferes with Washington’s authority to regulate the conduct of how Washington state attorneys provide legal services.

“The cease-and-desist letter has slammed the door on the only chance hundreds of unrepresented individuals have to receive any legal assistance,” said Matt Adams, Legal Director for NWIRP. “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.”

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project is a nationally-recognized legal services organization founded in 1984. Each year, NWIRP provides direct legal assistance in immigration matters to over 10,000 low-income people from over 135 countries, speaking over 60 different languages and dialects. NWIRP also strives to achieve systemic change to policies and practices affecting immigrants through impact litigation, public policy work, and community education. NWIRP serves the community from four offices in Washington state in Seattle, Granger, Tacoma, and Wenatchee.

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