ACLU Brief Supports NWIRP’s Resistance to Government Attempt to Limit its Help to Immigrants

News Release: 
Friday, May 12, 2017
The First Amendment protects the right of lawyers to advise people of their legal rights.  This right is especially important for groups like NWIRP, which offers vital free legal services to vulnerable immigrants in complex court proceedings.

The ACLU of Washington today submitted a brief backing the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s (NWIRP) lawsuit in federal court challenging a U.S. Department of Justice’s “cease and desist” letter. The letter is aimed at preventing NWIRP attorneys from providing certain types of free legal aid to people in immigration court, work that the organization has done for more than 30 years.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) wants to force NWIRP to take an all-or-nothing approach to its work: either NWIRP must commit to providing its immigrant clients with full legal representation through their entire removal proceedings, or it must refrain from providing them any form of legal assistance—not even a brief consultation.  

The directive interferes with NWIRP’s constitutional right to shape its advocacy as an independent organization.  It would wrongly deprive countless immigrants of NWIRP’s vital legal assistance.  And it could jeopardize the work of other nonprofit legal organizations—like the ACLU—across the country.

“Regulations like this are particularly harmful when they written so vaguely that the government can pick and choose its targets.  The ACLU of Washington is deeply troubled that NWIRP is the leading immigrant rights group to challenge the Trump Administration’s callous immigration policies, and was the only organization to receive a ‘cease and desist’ letter like this one,” said Kathleen Taylor, Executive Director of the ACLU of Washington.

“In America, we have a First Amendment right to form organizations that engage in political expression and advocacy. Just as we have long fought for the ACLU’s right to engage in these protected activities, so too will we fight for NWIRP’s right to speak on behalf of immigrants and to shape its own advocacy,” said Emily Chiang, ACLU-WA Legal Director.  

This is far from the first time that government has attempted to restrict lawyers challenging government actions and policies. In the 1970s, South Carolina had a policy of requiring some women to undergo sterilization as a condition of receiving Medicaid. Edna Primus, a lawyer volunteering for the ACLU, met with women who had undergone or were facing sterilization to inform them of their rights under the Constitution and to suggest the possibility of a lawsuit.

For this, South Carolina charged her with breaking rules governing how lawyers could solicit clients. Primus was disciplined, but the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately overturned the reprimand, noting that her effort to find and represent women whose constitutional rights were jeopardized was political speech and, as such, protected by the First Amendment.

In its decision, the Court noted that free speech rights have been defended with particular force when they have involved “the associational freedom of nonprofit organizations, or their members, having characteristics like those of the NAACP or the ACLU.”

The current case (NWIRP v. Sessions) is pending in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The brief was written by ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys Jake Ewart and Andrew G. Murphy of Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson P.S. with support from ACLU-WA Equal Justice Works Fellow Jessica Wolfe.