Jeff Sessions Tries to Halt Legal Aid Service for Detained Immigrants

Jeff Sessions Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore

The Department of Justice recently ordered a well-respected immigrant rights group in Seattle to stop offering an important legal service for indigent immigrants facing deportation. The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) offers detained immigrants what are called “pro se” legal services, but has been ordered by the Department of Justice to refrain from providing them. Pro se is a term that means filing something “for oneself,” meaning that the person acts as their own lawyer in court. Because of a shortage of lawyers who can provide full representation, NWIRP assists immigrants in filling out their forms and then helps them to file the forms on their own, a service called “pro se assistance.”

NWIRP attorney Matt Adams told reporter Amy Goodman that the Justice Department is saying “if we encounter someone who doesn’t have legal representation, we are being ordered to refrain from assisting those individuals, unless we take on their case for full representation. But, of course, what this means is the vast majority of individuals will not receive any legal assistance.” Adams explained that “just 40 minutes south of Seattle is a detention center where 1,500 individuals are locked up. Of those 1,500 people, 90 percent of them do not have an attorney. Our organization represents as many as we can, but that’s just a small portion of the 1,500 individuals who are locked up. So, in addition to the hundreds of people that we help out and take on for full representation, we provide workshops. We help others fill out application forms. We help them file motions to reopen cases.”

This pro se model is used by many organizations around the country. It has been an effective way of filling the lawyer gap for indigent immigrants. Adams says that “now the Department of Justice said, ‘No, if you are not taking on full representation, then you are ordered to cease and desist helping those individuals.’” As Adams explained, his group has offered pro se assistance for more than three decades without incident. However, now the Trump administration claims that “it would not be fair to the unrepresented immigrants if we provided them this assistance without taking on their full case, knowing very well that we don’t have the resources to take on their case, and knowing very well that the government does not provide them with appointed counsel,” says Adams.

Ironically, the Justice Department has defended itself from charges that detainees do not get fair court hearings in the past by pointing to the pro se services provided by NWIRP.

On Wednesday May 17th, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones issued a Temporary Restraining Order blocking the Justice Department from preventing organizations from providing pro se legal assistance.

At a meeting of two-dozen New York-based immigrant legal service providers held Monday May 15th, several organizations said that their service model included pro se assistance. Closing down pro se work will harm the poorest immigrants with the least access to legal services. The order from Judge Jones is national in scope, and will temporarily block similar orders throughout the country.

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