US sued for warning immigrant advocacy group to stop legal aid

A nonprofit fighting the Trump administration’s travel ban in court sued the U.S. Justice Department after being warned to stop offering legal aid to undocumented immigrants.

The department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review demanded that the immigrants’ advocacy group refrain from advising people facing deportation if it isn’t formally representing them. The Northwest Immigrants Rights Project said the government’s sudden invocation of a 2008 regulation is a bureaucratic maneuver to stymie its assistance to poor people threatened with being returned to their native countries.

President Donald Trump is continuing to crack down on undocumented immigrants and enforce more stringent border control, even as some immigration advocacy groups have helped win key victories in court against the administration’s efforts. The White House continues to push for construction of a wall along the Mexican border while also defending its authority to cut off federal funding for sanctuary cities that provide safe harbor to residents seeking to avoid deportation.

The Justice Department’s April 5 warning letter to the Seattle-based advocacy group came about two months after it led a coalition of nonprofits seeking a nationwide halt to Trump’s travel restrictions on citizens of seven mostly Muslim nations. Courts have kept a revised version of the travel ban on hold, with the president vowing to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get it reinstated.

In another showdown over the administration’s power to carry out the crackdown on its own terms, the U.S. was accused Tuesday of trying to “avoid accountability” by withholding critical public data about enforcement activity. A research group affiliated with Syracuse University, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, said in a lawsuit that the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency failed to justify its abrupt decision in January to halt the release of information on how often immigrants are detained and deported.

The legal director of the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project said the 2008 regulation that requires it to enter formal notice any time it offers help to an undocumented immigrant creates an unrealistic paperwork burden for his 30-attorney staff.

“It’s just not possible to talk to all of those people who need aid and file all of that paperwork," Matt Adams said. “Effectively, they’re trying to make it easier to successfully deport thousands of people a year."

The group said that while it’s complying with the regulation for now, the Justice Department’s warning letter violates its constitutional right to free speech and Washington state’s Tenth Amendment right to regulate legal services. If upheld in court, the policy would “preclude that majority of people in deportation proceedings" from receiving any legal assistance, according to the filing.

Nicole Navas, a Justice Department spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the two lawsuits.

The legal aid case is Northwest Immigrant Rights Project v. Sessions, 17-cv-00716, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington (Seattle). The freedom-of-information case is Long v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. District Court, Northern District of New York (Syracuse).

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