A federal judge in Seattle on Wednesday said the Department of Justice cannot block attorneys from assisting immigrants they aren't formally representing, freeing lawyers across the nation to continue helping immigrants fill paperwork, obtain legal status or otherwise navigate one of the most complex bureaucracies in the United States.
Earlier this month, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), a local nonprofit that provides legal aid and other services to immigrants, sued the Department of Justice and Attorney General Jeff Sessions for issuing a cease and desist letter ordering the nonprofit to stop doing the work its become renowned for. Today, US District Judge Richard A. Jones agreed with NWIRP that complying with this order would infringe on the group's constitutional rights to free speech and association, and ordered the government to stop sending cease-and-desists to organizations like the immigration nonprofit.
In NWIRP's original motion for a temporary restraining order against the government, lawyers argued that the government's cease-and-desist order would prevent the group from offering services to thousands of immigrants, including unaccompanied children and asylum seekers. For this reason, they said, the government's order infringed on rights to free speech and association, as well as Washington's own regulatory authority.
But the government attempted to justify its cease-and-desist with a 2008 rule designed to prevent unlicensed attorneys who falsely promised immigrants they could help them gain legal status. Government lawyers argued that the Department of Justice and the Executive Office of Immigration Review were well within their rights.
"We are pleased with today's ruling from Judge Jones and pleased that he issued this Temporary Restraining Order on a nationwide basis so other organizations can continue their work without the threat of being sanctioned," NWIRP executive director Jorge Barón said in a statement.
Seattle City Council Member Lorena González, also a lawyer and the daughter of migrant farmworkers, said she had asked the City Attorney's Office to file an amicus brief in support of NWIRP in its continuing litigation against the federal government. In March, González and other Seattle City Council members released a plan to create a $1 million legal defense fund to help people in immigration court.
Jones' ruling, González said in a statement, showed that immigrant lawyers and advocates "will not back down in the face of the Federal Government's fear-mongering."
"The Department of Justice cannot and should not prevent immigration lawyers from providing quality legal services to the very people who need those services," González said. "I applaud the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project for not only standing up to this attempt at suppression, but for continuing to support and defend immigrants and refugees as they are continually and unfairly targeted by this administration."