By Amy Roe
The lawyers at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project recently found themselves in the crosshairs of the Department of Justice for doing something they’ve done for more than 30 years: helping immigrants who can’t afford a lawyer.
In a letter to NWIRP, the DOJ attempted to require the group to either agree to provide full representation in deportation proceedings to an immigrant seeking help or forgo helping that person entirely. Groups like NWIRP do not have the resources to fully represent every immigrant who needs help, and in immigration proceedings the government does not provide lawyers to people who cannot afford them. The DOJ’s demand would severely limit the number of immigrants who receive legal assistance in Washington.
It also happens to be unconstitutional.
NWIRP challenged the DOJ’s in court, and the ACLU of Washington filed an amicus brief in support of the challenge. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones granted NWIRP’s request for a temporary restraining order, finding that the government’s demand violated the nonprofit’s free-speech right to share information with others.
Since the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly and consistently recognized that the right of people to receive information from lawyers, and the right of lawyers to give information to people in need of it is free speech protected by the First Amendment.
Because there’s a danger the government could use selective enforcement of broad rules to censor such speech, and because First Amendment freedoms need “breathing space” to survive, the Court has said that government can only regulate lawyers with “narrow specificity.”
And when free-speech rights have involved the freedom of association characterized by nonprofit organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP, courts have defended them especially vigorously.
The Trump Administration’s attacks on the rights of immigrants are unlike anything America has ever seen. They include a pair of discriminatory Muslim bans and threats to yank portions of federal funding from jurisdictions that refuse to comply with the government’s unconstitutional mass deportation program.
From challenging the Muslim ban to giving free legal advice to immigrants who need it, NWIRP has stood strong in the face of these attacks.
That is their right. The First Amendment isn’t first for nothing.
Amy Roe is a Senior Writer with ACLU of Washington