A skeptical U.S. District Judge Richard Jones has ruled that the Justice Department’s cease-and-desist order to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project would violate the Constitution. And the nonprofit is skeptical, too.
A federal judge in Seattle has temporarily blocked a Justice Department order that called on a local immigrant-rights organization to stop some of its legal work. His ruling also applies to similar groups around the country.
U.S. District Judge Richard Jones ruled Wednesday after oral arguments in a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP).
In a letter last month, the Justice Department told the group it must “cease and desist” providing certain legal assistance to immigrants unless it undertakes full representation of them in court.
Jones on Wednesday said the immigrant-rights group showed it would be immediately and irreparably harmed by the government’s action. The cease-and-desist order also would violate the organization’s constitutional rights, including to free speech, the judge ruled.
Most of the work of immigrant-rights group is its representation of clients, according to legal director Matt Adams. But it also offers lesser help, including preparing documents, to those representing themselves.
The group says it doesn’t have the resources to represent everyone, and the order would leave thousands of people a year without any help at all. People facing deportation are not entitled to an attorney the way criminal defendants are.
Despite a government request to limit his ruling to the group, Jones barred the Justice Department from sending similar orders to any other organizations around the nation.
In oral arguments, government attorney Victor Mercado-Santana said the regulation requiring attorneys to file a formal notice of representation before offering “advice and additional assistance” is intended to hold them accountable for misconduct and combat fraud by unlicensed legal practitioners.
But Jones repeatedly expressed skepticism. Did the government have any evidence that Northwest Immigrant Rights Project was providing poor representation or was deficient in any way at all?
“At this moment, I don’t have any information regarding that,” Mercado-Santana said.
Does the government believe the group’s is pursuing “political objectives?” the judge asked.
Mercado-Santana said he didn’t want to characterize the work of the immigrant-rights group.
The government attorney suggested those questions were irrelevant anyway. The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the office within the Justice Department overseeing immigration courts, needs to enforce its rule consistently. If anybody is held to it, then the group should be too.
But the rule has been in effect since 2008, the judge stressed. “Nine years went by with no action,” he said. At some point, he asked, did the government waive its enforcement right?
No, said Mercado-Santana. He maintained the government took action as soon as actions of the rights group came to light, even though the organization has for years been putting a notation on immigration court documents it helped prepare.
During a court recess, the executive director Jorge Barón said his group has some of the same questions as the judge: “Why after all these years? “Why now?
He noted that both Seattle and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project have gotten a lot of attention in recent months for their support of immigrants and resistance to President Donald Trump’s agenda. Barón and other attorneys with the group, for instance, went to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after Trump issued his first travel ban and were instrumental in stopping immigrants from being turned away. The organization also filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the first and second travel bans, and has held countless “know your rights” presentations.
The government’s cease-and-desist order, Barón said, “gives us concern that this could be retaliation for those activities.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas declined to comment.
Mercado-Santana said that the immigrant-rights organization could continue to do much of its work it has said would be affected. It could hold know your rights presentations. It could offer advice — as long as it didn’t cross the line through “auxiliary activities” before the court.
But when Jones pressed him on exactly where the line is, Mercado-Santana didn’t provide a clear answer.
“How’s a lawyer supposed to know?” the judge asked.
He said his temporary restraining order will be in effect until the court can deliberate on the request of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project for a permanent injunction.