May 23, 2017; Moyers & company
Nonprofits often step in to address the shortcomings of government and the private sector. Immigrant legal representation is one of these. In the U.S., immigrants, regardless of legal status, have no right to counsel in immigration proceedings. A “patchwork of underfunded nonprofits…and attorneys do their best to help immigrants in court,” but four weeks ago one of these, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, “a respected nonprofit in Seattle” received a “cease and desist” letter from the Department of Justice threatening disciplinary action if NWIRP did not close down its asylum advisory program.
Last week, NWIRP fought back by filing a lawsuit against the DOJ order. A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order in the case, allowing NWIRP to continue its work for now. The temporary restraining order also stops the Justice Department from issuing similar “cease and desist” letters to similar organizations. But the DOJ “will soon come after other nonprofits.”
A recent article on Moyers & company says, “The outcome of this legal battle will profoundly impact access to legal representation for the tens of thousands of immigrants who apply for asylum in the United States every year and the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants whose cases are currently in front of an immigration judge.”
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The DOJ accuses NWIRP of providing service to immigrants without committing to full representation. It is using a rule meant to protect people from scoundrel lawyers “who steal money from immigrants too vulnerable to report them.” Immigrants are allowed to secure free legal help “only if they find a lawyer who will commit up-front to a case that will stretch for years. Otherwise, they’re…required to submit complex legal documents with no assistance and lawyers who try to help them will be sanctioned.”
NWIRP and its peers “have had longstanding agreements with immigration officials that permit them to run asylum-assistance programs without committing to permanent representation.”
Being in the U.S without authorization is a civil violation and not a crime. The U.S. practice of providing public lawyers to people who cannot afford one only applies to people charged with a crime. There are a few thousand private immigration lawyers, but it isn’t enough even for those who can afford them. NWIRP and other similar nonprofits leverage law-school clinics and pro bono work from lawyers at large firms to do their work.
NWIRP was at the forefront of resisting President Trump’s temporary travel ban. The DOJ is perverting a rule meant to protect immigrants to attack the airport lawyers who stood up to Trump. In Trump’s administration it appears that the role of an efficient government is to use tax dollars to attack nonprofit organizations that help some of the most vulnerable people.—Cyndi Suarez