Wolfsdorf Rosenthal LLP

Nonprofit Group Fights Cease-and-Desist Order from DOJ

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) recently received a “cease-and-desist” letter (PDF) from the Department of Justice, ordering NWIRP to stop representing clients and close down its asylum advisory program at an immigration detention center in Washington state. NWIRP subsequently filed a lawsuit and was granted a temporary restraining order in May. NWIRP provides free and low-cost legal services to thousands of immigrants each year and, as part of the larger “airport lawyers” efforts nationwide, sent staff and volunteer lawyers to SeaTac airport in Seattle, Washington, to provide emergency legal assistance to travelers caught up in President Trump’s travel ban.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington at Seattle noted that the NWIRP is the sole pro bono organization listed by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) for the state of Washington. In 2008, EOIR published new professional conduct rules for attorneys appearing in immigration proceedings. EOIR’s rules were intended to protect individuals in immigration proceedings by disciplining attorneys who engage in “criminal, unethical, or unprofessional conduct or frivolous behavior.” One of the activities the rules targeted was “notario fraud,” where a would-be immigrant pays for ongoing legal services that are not provided. The court noted that NWIRP sometimes provides emergency legal services without the resources to commit to full future representation of each potential client. NWIRP said that it met with the local immigration court administrator to discuss the rule’s impact and “agreed that it would notify the court when it assisted with any pro se motion or brief by including a subscript or other clear indication in the document that NWIRP had prepared or assisted in preparing the motion or application.”

Nearly nine years after promulgating the rule, EOIR sent a “cease and desist” letter to NWIRP ordering the nonprofit to stop “representing aliens unless and until the appropriate Notice of Entry of Appearance form is filed with each client that NWIRP represents.” NWIRP filed suit against EOIR, among others, seeking injunctive relief and a temporary restraining order so the organization can maintain the status quo until the parties can be heard on the motion for preliminary injunction.

In granting the temporary restraining order, the court said NWIRP had shown that “it is likely to succeed on the claims that entitle it to relief; NWIRP has already suffered and is likely to continue suffering irreparable harm in the absence of temporary injunctive relief; the balance of the equities tips in NWIRP’s favor; and granting this [temporary restraining order] is in the public interest.”

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