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Korematsu Center fights DOJ order blocking legal help for immigrants

June 23, 2017

People have First Amendment rights to receive information and ideas from legal advisers, and lawyers have similar rights to express those ideas, according to a brief filed by the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality in support of legal advocates who have been ordered to stop helping immigrants.

In April, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, ordering the advocacy group to "cease and desist" from assisting unrepresented immigrants in deportation proceedings. NWIRP has since filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to challenge the order. The Korematsu Center supports this challenge. (Read the brief here.)

"History teaches that those in power have regularly taken similar actions to incapacitate legal aid and civil rights organizations and silence the communities they represent by imposing deceptively innocuous regulations upon the legal profession," the Korematsu Center's brief reads.

Historical examples mentioned in the brief include attempted restrictions on the NAACP as that group worked toward desegregation during the civil rights era, as well as attempts to thwart the American Civil Liberties Union's work on behalf of women's reproductive freedom.

Melissa Lee"DOJ's cease and desist order would result in hundreds of immigrants going without any assistance in their cases, making it nearly impossible for them to effectively self-advocate," says Korematsu Center Staff Attorney Melissa Lee. "This action is an attempt to silence a community and is a violation of the First Amendment." 

For over 30 years NWIRP has provided community presentations, workshops, and individual consultations to help people in deportation proceedings understand their rights and identify defenses from deportation and types of immigration relief. Last year alone NWIRP screened more than 1,000 people with cases pending before the immigration tribunals, as well as more than 600 people seeking to apply for asylum. 

Attorneys at NWIRP offer full representation in some of those cases. But in others, the organization offers limited assistance in helping people represent themselves and fill out forms. Federal officials argue that NWIRP attorneys have to submit a "notice of appearance" for every single person. This would effectively oblige attorneys to take on full representation in every case, which would be logistically impossible.

NWIRP's lawsuit asserts that the DOJ order violates NWIRP attorneys' constitutional right to free speech, impeding their ability to promote and defend the rights of immigrants in Washington state. In addition, the suit charges that the regulation unlawfully interferes with Washington's authority to regulate the conduct of how Washington state attorneys provide legal services.

The Korematsu Center's amicus brief, accepted by Judge Richard Jones on June 22, was filed with the assistance of attorneys at Dorsey & Whitney LLP. The brief seeks to provide historical context for the efforts to restrict legal advocacy and reinforce the legal arguments in favor of NWIRP.

Judge Jones temporarily blocked the DOJ order on May 17. Oral arguments on the motion for preliminary injunction are set for July 24.