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Federal Judge Blocks Government Restriction on Legal Aid for Immigrants

U.S. District Judge Richard Jones of Seattle, Washington recently ruled to block a federal action prohibiting nonprofits from providing legal assistance to immigrants in detention and facing deportation. The decision would allow organizations like Seattle-based Northwest Immigration Rights Project to resume their efforts to provide legal aid to undocumented immigrants, albeit temporarily, until the Department of Justice can act on the matter.

The Department of Justice sent a cease-and-desist notice to the Northwest Immigration Rights Project, sternly reminding the nonprofit to commit to providing full legal representation for every immigrant they advise or completely halt providing legal aid altogether.

The legal aid group scoffed at the order, calling it a “new and novel” interpretation of a 2008 rule designed to protect detained immigrants from being exploited by people pretending to be attorneys. The group adds the DOJ’s interpretation technically violates the First and 10th Amendment rights of attorneys and restricts legal assistance to immigrants.

Such legal aid organizations are invaluable to immigrants facing deportation proceedings, as they do not have the same right to an attorney or legal representation as they would receive in criminal proceedings. Public defenders are not provided to those who can’t afford representation, making legal aid groups like Northwest a blessing for immigrants facing deportation.

Judge Jones found many other legal assistance groups like Northwest would be immediately and irreparably harmed as a result of the rule’s implementation. He was careful to note the government had sent multiple similar cease-and-desist notices to nonprofit legal groups providing legal aid to immigrants, which he pointed out would have a “chilling effect” on their efforts to assist detained immigrants.

He gave the order to stop the enforcement of the rule both against Northwest and other similar groups nationwide at a hearing last Wednesday.

Oral arguments ensued. Judge Jones questioned Department of Justice Attorney Victor Mercado-Santana as to whether an immigrant seeking help from an attorney in preparing and filling necessary forms would constitute a violation of the rule. Mercado-Santana promptly answered that “It may not.”

Judge Jones followed up by pointing out the Justice Department’s interpretation of the rule would place lawyers in an awkward position, and asked how layers are so supposed to know if they’re violating the rule. In response, Mercado-Santana said lawyers would automatically know the meaning of “legal advice.”

Representing Northwest, Jamie Allen said the government’s response was largely inadequate and only served to further confound what are and are not permitted or prohibited under the rule.

A temporary restraining order against the federal rule is currently in effect.

Immigration legal issues are currently a hot button topic in the country, with lower courts clashing with the feds. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed SB 4 into law, enacting a ban against so-called sanctuary cities in the state. Immigration rights advocates have vowed to take legal action against the law.

If you, or a loved one, are concerned about your rights as an immigrant, talk to the legal team of the Lyttle Law Firm. Call our offices today to sit down for a consultation with immigration attorney Daniella Lyttle.

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