While the Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney for citizens accused of crimes, the same right does not apply to undocumented immigrants. Without formal representation, tens of thousands of immigrants rely on legal nonprofits to help them navigate the loopy, infuriating mazes known as U.S. immigration courts.
In April, the Department of Justice sent a cease-and-desist letter to Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), a Seattle nonprofit, ordering the group to stop providing informal legal services to undocumented immigrants in this region. The group said that without its help, thousands of immigrants facing deportation would be left in the dark.
NWRIP sued the feds, naming Attorney General (for the time being, at least) Jeff Sessions as the defendant. The group said the prohibition against providing legal services to immigrants violated its first amendment right of association.
Today, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in favor of NWIRP, effectively signaling to nonprofits nationwide that they’re free to help undocumented immigrants without going through the process of formally signing onto the case of every person that they advocate for. Thirty-two different legal organizations and nonprofits signed declarations and letters of support saying the policy would impede their ability to help immigrants.
Federal Judge Richard Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington previously issued a restraining order against the Justice Department, temporarily blocking federal officials from sending cease-and-desist letters to legal groups providing informal services to undocumented immigrants. Judge Jones’s ruling today follows oral arguments from NWIRP and federal lawyers.
“During this unprecedented time of increased immigration detention and deportation of immigrants by the Trump Administration, thousands of immigrants who cannot afford an attorney rely on legal advice to help them as they face deportation,” said NWIRP executive director Jorge L. Barón. “Today's victory grants them a better opportunity to seek justice."
The Department of Justice may appeal the ruling. It did not immediately respond to The Stranger’s request for comment.