Jorge Barón is at the helm as the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project has put itself in the white-hot center of the nation’s immigration debate.

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There was a moment when Jorge Barón knew Hollywood was not for him. He was in a training program for assistant directors and he arrived on a set for the military law show “JAG.”

It was meant to replicate Lima, Peru. Instead, it looked like the stereotype of a Mexican village, complete with donkeys and sombreros.

“Listen, I’ll admit I’ve never been to Lima, but I know this is not what it looks like. It’s bigger than Bogotá,” he told his boss, referring to the sprawling metropolis that is the capital of his home country, Colombia.

“I know you’re right,” came the reply. “But this is what it is … Maybe someday you’ll become the boss and you can change the system.”

Barón did become a boss and started confronting the system — but only after deciding his first career path was meaningless and embarking on a new one: immigration law.

It’s a tack that has made the 44-year-old Seattle attorney — executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) — a “legal hero” of Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a figure in constant demand as the nation’s immigration debate turns white-hot under President Donald Trump.

It’s also one that brought Barón together with another local immigration lawyer coming into his own, Matt Adams, to file a series of nationally significant lawsuits — arguing, for instance, that children and people who are mentally ill should not be deported without access to counsel.

In the early days of the Trump administration, Barón and his staff seem to be everywhere: at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, running to stop a plane carrying foreigners turned away by the president’s travel ban; at countless “know your rights” and “Immigration 101” presentations with fearful immigrants and their advocates; in court, helping the legal team represent a young man sent to the Northwest Detention Center despite being a Dreamer with authorization to live and work in the U.S.

Providing free and low-cost legal services, NWIRP formed in 1984 to help refugees from Central America gain asylum. Barón took over in 2008.

Since then, the staff has almost doubled, to roughly 70 people in four offices around the state. It is now the largest such organization in the West and possibly in the country, according to Barón. Its budget, from donations and government funding, has grown to $6.5 million.

The nonprofit already had built considerable momentum when Trump came around with his ban on travelers and immigrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries.

While the ACLU and states such as Washington sued to stop the ban’s implementation, Barón’s organization launched its own attack in federal court.

“It’s an example of them litigating the most important issues in the country,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project.

 

A young Jorge Barón with his father, also Jorge Barón. The two appeared together on the elder Barón’s hugely popular TV show in Colombia.  (Courtesy of Jorge Barón)
A young Jorge Barón with his father, also Jorge Barón. The two appeared together on the elder Barón’s hugely popular TV show in Colombia. (Courtesy of Jorge Barón)

 

From Hollywood to Yale

Back in Colombia, everybody knows the name Jorge Barón — due to his father, who shares it. The elder Barón runs a TV production company and puts on star-studded events. He’s the host, wearing a white suit and pulling stunts such as having the fire department spray the audience with water.

“He’s almost the stereotype of the goofy Latin TV-show host,” the son said. “People love it.”

The younger Barón’s stage presence is far more understated; he wears khakis and open-necked shirts, and offers reasoned legal opinions rather than hyperbole.

He first impressed Ferguson, then a Metropolitan King County Council member, when Barón stayed until the end of a long nighttime council meeting — not to champion his own agenda but to interpret for someone affected by planned budget cuts.

“The guy has a law degree from Yale,” Ferguson noted, “and here he was waiting for hours to help this woman.”

Barón showed the same patience at a March “know your rights” presentation in White Center. As a group of mostly Somali women indicated it was time for evening prayer, he told them, “I’ll wait.”

Apart from any help he might be able to give, he wanted to hear their stories. Some, he said, might strengthen NWIRP’s lawsuit against the travel ban, filed on behalf of U.S. citizens and residents seeking to bring family members here. Court-ordered stays on the ban could be lifted, and Somali citizens would be affected.

“This is a big fight,” he told them, and they should know people are taking it on.

Barón got his start in front of audiences early. As a child, he appeared on his dad’s TV show, then on a Sunday kids program.

The gig was up when he came to the U.S. at 13 with his mom, who enrolled in a master’s program in Virginia and decided not to go back.

Barón kept thinking he would. But college led to Hollywood, which led in its strange way to Yale Law School.

“He really stood out,” said Stephen Bright, who teaches a death-penalty class there and long headed the Southern Center for Human Rights. “He knew what he was there for.”

Moved by a visit to the former Auschwitz concentration camp, Barón had resolved to work on international human rights. Yet getting to know Bright, in class and during a summer working for his nonprofit organization in Atlanta, reoriented him.

Barón recalled what Bright told him: “There’s a lot of human-rights work in the United States.”

 

Jorge Barón leads a community presentation on immigrant rights in Seattle.  (Johnny Andrews/The Seattle Times)
Jorge Barón leads a community presentation on immigrant rights in Seattle. (Johnny Andrews/The Seattle Times)

 

Defending 3- and 4-year-olds

Barón considers his first job at NWIRP one of the organization’s toughest. A few years out of law school, he worked out of Tacoma, representing immigrants held at the Northwest Detention Center.

“In detention, you’re in this do-or-die situation,” he said. Lose your case and you’re deported. The odds are not good.

Unlike in the criminal justice system, there generally is no right to an attorney in immigration court. Very few detainees have the resources to get one, and NWIRP accepts a fraction of cases.

“I just hate the fact that we have to say no to so many people,” he told Adams, NWIRP’s legal director and its No. 1 fighter in federal court — explaining his bid for the executive-director job just two years after he started at NWIRP. “I’d like to try to make that happen less.”

Given his inexperience, Barón said: “I tell people I think the board committed malpractice by hiring me.”

After getting the job, he steadily cultivated donors and expanded programs, including those working with Dreamers, immigrants seeking asylum and citizenship, and victims of domestic violence eligible for a special visa.

One local couple donated $1.75 million, in part for what NWIRP calls “impact litigation.” The team working on that, headed by Adams, just hired a third attorney.

Adams came to NWIRP 19 years ago straight out of UC Berkeley Law School. He had grown up in Eastern Washington alongside the children of immigrant farmworkers, and had seen a few of his neighbors taken away by immigration officials.

He returned to Eastern Washington for NWIRP, working on cases out of its office in Granger, Yakima County. There, he came to a realization: To address big problems, “We couldn’t just look at individual cases.”

NWIRP sued, for instance, over aggressive Border Patrol tactics on the Olympic Peninsula. Agents were stopping people, including U.S. citizens and corrections officers, for traffic violations or outside courthouses. They used the opportunity to question people about their immigration status, just as they did when the Forest Service or other agencies called them in, ostensibly to act as interpreters.

In one 2011 case, a man jumped into a river while running away from a Border Patrol agent/interpreter and drowned.

NWIRP’s lawsuit, filed in conjunction with the ACLU, charged that the Border Patrol was racially profiling; its stops lacked the probable cause required by the Constitution.

A 2013 settlement required training for Port Angeles agents and 18 months of reporting on all Olympic Peninsula stops to NWIRP and the ACLU. Separate complaints by NWIRP over the use of Border Patrol agents as interpreters led the agency to stop that practice.

Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said NWIRP, like many such groups, tries to “throw sand in the gears and make it as difficult as possible to carry out any kind of immigration enforcement.”

Barón makes little effort to placate the pro-enforcement lobby. “We don’t just focus on people who are politically popular,” he said. He cited a client convicted years earlier of charges related to a drive-by shooting — exactly the kind of person Barón knows many people think should be deported.

The crime made the client vulnerable to that fate, though he was a legal permanent resident. NWIRP successfully argued that the specific charges didn’t mandate deportation.

The man had done his time, had turned his life around and had a family who depended on him, Barón noted, though he doesn’t really need convincing. “It’s not our job to decide who’s deserving and who’s not,” he said.

It’s a matter of due process, he contends. “We see the right to having an attorney as a human right.”

In 2013, a federal judge ruled for the first time that one group of people — the mentally ill — are entitled to government-appointed lawyers in immigration court throughout Washington, California and Arizona. The ruling stemmed from a class-action suit brought by NWIRP, the ACLU and Public Counsel in Los Angeles.

The government did not appeal — but it did over a higher-profile class-action lawsuit brought by NWIRP and other organizations seeking the right to an attorney for children in immigration court. The suit drew national news coverage, especially after a government lawyer argued that 3- and 4-year-olds are able to defend themselves.

Reversing a ruling favorable to the plaintiffs, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that U.S. District Court did not have jurisdiction over what one judge called “a highly controversial political matter.”

Francisco Lobos, left, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala as a teenager and is a plaintiff in a high-profile lawsuit NWIRP has brought over representation for minors in the immigration system, speaks with Matt Adams, the organization’s legal director.  (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Francisco Lobos, left, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala as a teenager and is a plaintiff in a high-profile lawsuit NWIRP has brought over representation for minors in the immigration system, speaks with Matt Adams, the organization’s legal director. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

NWIRP and its allies are now waiting to hear whether the 9th Circuit will grant their request for a review by a larger panel of judges.

Talking at the organization’s downtown office recently, plaintiff Francisco Lobos described how he left Guatemala on his own at 14.

With Adams interpreting, the soft-spoken teen, now a high-school junior, said his dad had stopped providing for the family. “I wanted to be able to provide for my mom and have a future for myself,” he explained.

Joining a group headed north, he spent a month crossing Mexico and eight days walking through the Arizona desert. Then, he said, “Immigration grabbed me.”

While waiting for a deportation hearing, he was released to a family acquaintance living in Seattle. A school staffer suggested he contact NWIRP for help with representation.

NWIRP put him on its long waiting list, qualifying him to be a plaintiff in its suit.

Lobos might not stay one: A private lawyer has since agreed to represent him pro bono.

He keeps in touch with NWIRP, though. “Just last semester, he got on the honor roll,” Adams said, smiling at the teen. With everything going on his life, Adams said, “it’s really amazing to me that he did that.”