Virginia Cole gives a legal workshop at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. The U.S. Department of Justice has moved to halt some free legal help provided to immigrants. 
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Virginia Cole gives a legal workshop at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. The U.S. Department of Justice has moved to halt some free legal help provided to immigrants.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Why DOJ ordered these Seattle lawyers to stop helping some immigrants

The cease and desist order came as a shock. It was from the U.S. Justice Department, ordering a group of Seattle lawyers to stop helping in some deportation cases.

The lawyers contend DOJ’s action could cut off free legal help for thousands of immigrants across the country, and they're fighting back with a lawsuit.

“It has a dramatic impact,” said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), the group suing the Justice Department. “More than 30 organizations and firms have issued declarations, talking about how the government’s cease and desist order would create havoc with the services they’re providing around the country.”

In immigration court, there's no right to an attorney. Most people can't afford to hire one on their own. So if a volunteer attorney offers to help out with your case, that’s a big deal. Especially if you’re locked up.


On a Tuesday afternoon, about 30 men file into a meeting room at the Northwest Detention Center, a large immigration jail in Tacoma. The men all wear blue or green uniforms, and they all face deportation.

“Do I have any more coming?” Virginia Cole asks the guards. Cole, a legal advocate with NWIRP, has run legal workshops at the detention center every week for more than 11 years.

Cole scribbles topics on the chalkboard: la corte, las defensas, la fianza, la deportación.

Court, defenses, bonds, deportation.

“Who has a court hearing this week?” she asks in Spanish.

A few hands go up.

“Who has an attorney?” Just a couple this time.

Occasionally, people raise their hands with questions about their personal case.

“What about this evidence my family sent?” one man asks.

“Can my employer send a letter to help with my case?” asks another.

But Cole explains she can’t discuss any personal cases in this workshop. It's just a basic 101 about how immigration court works. The time is limited to 50 minutes. It goes by fast.

This free workshop isn't in dispute. It’s part of a legal orientation program the federal government pays for at detention centers around the country.

It’s what happens next that led to the cease and desist order.

After the workshop, detainees line up to schedule one-on-one meetings with a volunteer attorney. Cole notes their name on her list, along with the date of their next hearing.

Cole explains more as the guards escort us out.

“So the last question I asked is if they don’t have an attorney and they have additional questions and want to speak with us individually, they can sign up,” Cole said.

She warns them the wait list is about a month long, and help is limited.

“We would love to represent everybody who doesn’t have an attorney,” Cole says. “The reality is we just don’t have the resources to do so.”

A full case can take years. Typically, NWIRP’s lawyers will offer people a few hours of free help, maybe to fill out an asylum application or some other court papers.


Recently, this volunteer work hit a major snag.

The Justice Department ordered NWIRP to stop this partial help, saying lawyers must sign on for the full case. It's all or nothing.

One question raised in court: Why is this change coming now?

“I just want to be absolutely clear, there is nothing to the claim that this is some change in the regulation inspired by the administration,” said Fred Sheffield, attorney for the U.S. Justice Department, at hearing in Seattle federal court.

NWIRP has provided this type of short-term, limited assistance for years, assisting thousands of people. Their lawsuit seeks the right to continue their work, and for similar non-profits to do the same.

DOJ says they’re enforcing a 2008 rule intended to prevent fraud and make sure lawyers do a fair job. It requires lawyers to formally go on record as someone's attorney if they're providing anything more than general advice.

“If you’re going to talk to the immigration court, in the context of making legal arguments, we need to know who you are,” Sheffield explained during a July court hearing in U.S. District Court. “We need to know that you’re going to be accountable, and that you’ve committed to court’s rules. It encourages transparency.”

As a workaround to this 2008 rule, the court previously allowed NWIRP to continue the limited representation as long as lawyers signed the court filings they helped prepare. It seems this agreement has expired.

One question raised in the lawsuit: What triggers this rule from 2008 to kick in on an individual case? In other words, how much can a lawyer help before they cross the line?

During the July hearing, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones asked Sheffield about a hypothetical scenario in which a lawyer helps someone fill out a complicated asylum application.

“If it’s coaching in the sense that it’s advice, and saying, ‘these are claims that have worked in past,’ I don’t think that would cross the line,” Sheffield answered. “If it’s saying word for word this is how you should answer question 2C, then I think that would cross the line.”

Sheffield said the DOJ would need to review a specific asylum form in question to determine if any responses crossed the line.

Judge Richard Jones pushed back, saying this unclear boundary puts lawyers in a dilemma.

“How are lawyers supposed to know in the interpretation if they’ve crossed the line?" Jones asked. “It causes grave confusion, doesn’t it, for practitioners to know? What are lawyers supposed to do? Answer? Wait and see? Proceed at your own risk?”

For now, Judge Jones has temporarily blocked the cease and desist order to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. While it was in effect, they turned away about 50 people. And that was just in one week.