The Department of Justice is now insisting that lawyers helping immigrants shut down, and stop offering their services, because helping people, well, that’s a bad thing to do. This all hangs on a technicality, but one which is being exploited by the DOJ to remove legal help which is already scant on the ground for immigration matters. Immigrants do not have the right to legal representation here, which means that legal teams reaching out and offering help are doing it on their own time and dime. This is a devastating attack, yet another one which undermines one of those supposedly great pillars of America. It’s also outright white nationalism.
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. 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.)
When lawyers rushed to airports this winter 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. America, we are under attack.