A federal judge in Seattle has granted a nationwide order that allows immigration lawyers to keep assisting people in deportation, as usual. This comes after the Justice Department ordered a Seattle nonprofit to stop some of its legal help in these cases.
For people in the Seattle area who face deportation, the main source of free legal help comes from the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
But Jorge Baron, the group’s director, said they've recently had to turn away about 40 people every week – many with asylum applications.
“We could tell them, 'Well, you can fill it out on your own' and not do what we normally do, which is take that on and assist them on a limited basis,” Baron said.
In April, the Justice Department ordered the nonprofit to cease and desist a large part of its work and to only give people legal advice or help them fill out forms if they take on the entire case.
The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project sued, claiming in part that the order violates its constitutional rights to free speech.
For now, U.S District Judge Richard Jones has temporarily halted the DOJ order for Baron’s group and others like it around the country.
"We’re pleased by that and to get back to work as we do regularly," Baron said. "But we’re also pleased that he did it nationwide so other nonprofit service providers will not have this cloud hanging over them.”
Immigrant rights groups around the country have also raised concerns that the Justice Department could curtail their work in a similar way.
Baron says his staff can provide some help to hundreds of people every year. But resources are limited to take on entire cases, as the feds ordered.
Justice Department lawyers say that requirement is based on a 2008 rule designed to combat fraud by so-called "notarios" who pose as immigration lawyers. The rule aims to ensure lawyers who file documents in immigration court are transparent about help they provide and can be held accountable if mistakes are made.
When that rule was adopted, Baron said his organization agreed on a convention with the local immigration courts that allowed them to continue providing limited assistance and fully disclose when they do so.
In Wednesday's hearing, Judge Jones asked Justice Department attorney Victor Mercado-Santana if they have concerns about the quality of NWIRP's work in immigration court. None was cited.
Jones also asked Mercado-Santana if his agency has issued similar cease and desist orders to other legal groups.
"I believe this is the only one," Mercado-Santana answered.
Jones also questioned the timing of this Justice Department rule enforcement that appears to single out NWIRP and noted the political atmosphere.
"Immigration, I don't think anybody would dispute, is a highly charged topic right now," Jones said, before asking Mercado-Santana if he thought NWIRP's work is politically motivated. Mercado-Santana declined to offer his opinion but insisted the rules in immigration court apply to everyone.
But to Baron, whose group has an ongoing lawsuit against President Trump's travel ban, the timing seems suspect.
"We have been doing this for eight or nine years and there haven’t been any problems until April of this year," Baron said, referring to the their agreement with the local immigration courts. "You know, it does make us concerned."
For now, Judge Jones's order allows the immigration lawyers to continue their work, as usual, while this case continues in federal court.