Human Rights Lawyers Are Fighting a Justice Department Order to Stop Legal Aid for Immigrants

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A federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, heard arguments Monday over President Trump’s second travel ban, which sought to ban all refugees and citizens of six majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States. The panel of 13 judges appeared to be divided. As we broadcast from Seattle, we are joined by Matt Adams, lead counsel for the class action lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s executive order. Adams is legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He also describes how he is taking on U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the Department of Justice ordered his group to “cease and desist” from assisting unrepresented immigrants in deportation proceedings.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, heard arguments over Trump’s second Muslim ban, which sought to ban all refugees and citizens from six majority-Muslim nations from entering the U.S. The [13-judge] panel appeared to be divided over the ban. Some said Trump’s own statements showed the second travel ban still sought to unconstitutionally discriminate against people based on their religion. This is Judge Henry Floyd.

JUDGE HENRY FLOYD: Shortly after executive order two was signed, Sean Spicer said the principles remain the same. Trump, President Trump’s statement, concurrent with that time: “You know my plans.” Spicer: “President Trump yesterday continued to deliver on campaign promises.” Is there anything other than willful blindness that would prevent us from getting behind those statements?

AMY GOODMAN: Another judge, Robert King, pointed out that until Monday, Trump’s campaign website had continued to call for a, quote, “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” unquote. The White House removed that page during Monday’s hearing, after facing questions from reporters.

Well, for more, we’re joined here in Seattle by Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, lead counsel for the class action lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s executive order. His lawsuit was filed in Seattle on behalf of three parents legally living in the U.S. who are now restricted from bringing their children from Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

Matt Adams, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain what your lawsuit is all about and how Jeff Sessions is also one of your targets.

MATT ADAMS: Thank you. Yes, so our lawsuit is parallel to what’s happening in Maryland and now that will be reviewed here in Seattle, Washington, the lawsuit brought by Hawaii challenging the Muslim ban. Ours differs in that ours is on behalf of U.S. citizen and lawful permanent residents who have filed immigrant visa petitions for their spouses and children, and are being separated from them because of the ban, or at least until the court intervened and placed a hold on Trump’s ban. So it brings it from the perspective of those who are directly affected and separated from their loved ones. Now, just to be clear, this is separate from our lawsuit challenging the Department of Justice and Sessions’ actions targeting Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, in particular.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about how you’ve taken on Jeff Sessions, your group, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, filing a lawsuit in federal district court challenging an order from the Department of Justice that instructs your group to cease and desist from assisting unrepresented immigrants in deportation proceedings, the DOJ saying that your group can’t provide legal help to undocumented immigrants unless it undertakes formal representation of the clients? Their letter said your group Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s practice of representing “aliens” before the Executive Office for Immigration Review without filing the appropriate Notice of Entry of Appearance form is in violation of federal regulations. And I say that in quotes; we don’t use that word, “aliens.” Matt Adams, talk about what Justice is alleging, what Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, is saying here and saying you cannot do.

MATT ADAMS: What they’re saying is that if we encounter someone who doesn’t have legal representation, that we are unable—we are being ordered to not—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. So, for example, 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. And 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.” This is something we’ve been doing for 30 years, providing limited services. This is something that nonprofit organizations all across the country do to help out unrepresented individuals in deportation proceedings. And yet the government is relying on a regulation that they implemented in 2009, supposedly to target attorney misconduct and notario fraud, to say that, no, 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.

The one last point I’d make on that, what’s most ironic is that for the last six years we have been litigating against the federal government for their failure to provide attorneys for people in removal proceedings, saying that that makes a mockery of the constitutional requirement that they receive a fair hearing. And one of the government’s defenses all along has been, “Well, there’s a lot of other things that can be done to help these people, like these limited services that are provided to them.” And yet, now they turn around and order us to stop providing those limited services.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Adams, I want to thank you for being with us, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, lead counsel for the class action lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s executive order, his lawsuit filed here in Seattle on behalf of three parents living legally in the U.S. who are now restricted from bringing their kids from Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

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