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 Department of Justice, aka Attorney General Jeff Sessions, threatening disciplinary action. The letter demanded that NWIRP drop representation of its clients and close down its asylum-advisory program. What prompted this action on the part of the DOJ? In all likelihood, it was because NWIRP has been at the forefront of resisting Trump’s travel ban. Its staff and volunteer lawyers were at SeaTac airport immediately after the White House launched the first Muslim ban, and in March it sued to block the second Muslim ban.
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.
Remember that part of the Miranda warning that says, “if you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you”? It doesn’t apply to immigrants who face potential deportation, because it only applies in criminal, not civil proceedings, and being in the United States without authorization is a civil offense. This is where organizations like NWIRP are crucial to provide legal representation to immigrants who face mounds of legal paperwork and language barriers, and few have the means to pay for legal representation.
There are non-profits like NWIRP in many major cities around the U.S. They coordinate the volunteer work of lawyers at big law firms, who represent children and refugees in immigration and asylum proceedings for free. The DOJ’s suspiciously timed cease and desist letter sends a chilling message to exactly these groups, and to volunteer attorneys. This attack by the government on a legal services-provider for immigrants could dissuade law firms from letting their lawyers volunteer for these cases, scaring those firms away by convincing them that immigration-related projects are too risky pro-bono projects.
If they succeed, they don’t just deprive people of scarce resources for volunteer counsel, they gradually muzzle the bar. They marginalize the heroic work of nonprofits like NWIRP and its peers around the country. They defang the big law firms that have been willing to stand up to this administration—like Davis Wright Tremaine, which is assisting NWIRP—and they make immigrant representation a more marginal part of the law.
When lawyers rushed to airports in January and again in March to protect our friends, our neighbors, and our Constitution, people cheered. The Trump administration took offense, and now those lawyers are in their cross hairs. The president is taking a sledgehammer to the pillars of our government: the FBI, the Justice Department, the federal courts.