While the country has been fixated on President Trump’s firings, leaks, and outbursts involving the Department of Justice, that agency has itself been stealthily attacking our democracy by telling good lawyers to stop representing people. Four weeks ago, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP)—a respected nonprofit in Seattle that represents immigrants in deportation proceedings—received a “cease and desist” letter from the DOJ threatening disciplinary action. The letter demanded that NWIRP drop representation of its clients and close down its asylum-advisory program. The reason: a technicality, perversely applied. NWIRP is accused of breaking a rule that was put in place to protect people from lawyers or “notarios” who take their money and then drop their case.
Last week, NWIRP filed a lawsuit to defend itself against the DoJ’s order—and on Wednesday, a judge granted a restraining order. So for now, the organization can keep helping immigrants who need legal advice. But what’s at stake extends far beyond NWIRP and the 5,000 people it serves every year. 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.
Before I explain more, let’s step back for the context: You have no right to counsel in immigration proceedings. If you are not a citizen—or if the government merely alleges you aren’t—you can be taken from your home, jailed, and permanently deported without ever seeing a lawyer. This is perfectly legal. It happened to more than a million people under the Obama administration, which vastly expanded the machinery of deportation. (If you want this to be an “Obama was good, Trump is bad” story, sorry to disappoint.)
On the last day of President Obama’s term, nearly half a million people were in immigration court proceedings, which one judge describes as “death penalty trials in a traffic court setting.” Most of them had no lawyer, and the vast majority of them had committed no crime. They were prosecuted solely for being in the United States without authorization, which is a civil violation and not a crime. (That is the reason you don’t get a lawyer: The familiar promise of “if you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you” only applies to people accused of crimes.)
In the absence of a right to appointed counsel, a patchwork of underfunded nonprofits (like NWIRP) and attorneys do their best to help immigrants in court. These nonprofits leverage the volunteer work of lawyers at big law firms, who represent children and refugees in immigration and asylum proceedings for free. There are also a few thousand really good private immigration attorneys nationwide, which isn’t enough even for those who can afford to hire them.
There are thousands more unqualified and dishonest scoundrels who steal money from immigrants too vulnerable to report them. And it is these thieves and cheats that the DoJ’s rules were meant to protect immigrants from. But in Jeff Sessions’s DoJ, the Disciplinary Review office of the Executive Office of Immigration Review is instead pursuing NWIRP, and will soon come after other non-profits. The accusation is that because NWIRP provides advice and assistance to people in immigration proceedings without committing to full representation, it is violating the rules.