To address the rising demand for more immigration lawyers, a result of increasing deportations and detentions under President Donald J. Trump’s administration, Washington Immigration Defense Network (WIDEN) hosted a workshop on the Seattle University campus Jan 29.
With an ever-increasing number of detainee cases and not enough immigration lawyers to take every case, WIDEN is seeking to train non-immigration attorneys on immigration law so that they may assist in these cases. The attendees of the workshop were attorneys whose specialization lied elsewhere, but who wanted to get involved in directly helping immigrants.
“It’s always been that there were not enough immigration removal defense lawyers, but it has risen to crisis level,” Tahmina Watson Founder & President of WIDEN said. “And so there is a need to come up with new effective ways to provide legal representation in the immigration courtroom.”
The workshop featured an introduction to basic immigration law and focused on removal cases— cases in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is seeking to remove an immigrant from the country.
Founded last year, WIDEN provides funding and support to lawyers representing detained individuals. While they do work with immigration lawyers specifically focused on immigration, they also seek to train non-immigration lawyers on immigration law. Immigrants in the U.S. are not guaranteed the right to counsel in their immigration proceedings, a fact which Watson wants to change.
“Why isn’t there a right to counsel?” she said. “Toddlers who can barely say their names are facing court without a lawyer, immigrants fleeing persecution are being charged with crimes instead of being processed for asylum and at every step this administration is chipping away at the rule of law. If billions of dollars can be spent on unnecessary detention, then I call on Congress to create a national immigration legal defense fund to protect due process rights.”
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who has sued the Federal Government 33 times since Trump’s inauguration—most notably suing against the administration’s travel ban—emphasized the importance of legal representation in removal cases.
“The law is a powerful tool. Everyone’s accountable to the law, the presidents, I am, you are, everybody is,” he said. “And the court room’s a great level playing field….the key way in which it’s not, is it’s a great level playing field if, importantly, you have an advocate there by your side. You’ve got to have an advocate. Otherwise, it loses that power.”
At the event, local immigration lawyers Melissa Campos-Castenada and Minda A. Thorward led a “Removal Defense 101” session, where they provided an overview of the groundwork of immigration and removal law, proper screening protocol for clients, and the options their clients may have when faced with a removal case.
Amanda Masasi is a civil rights attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Washington chapter, and she said that she has seen clients within her own organization struggle in recent years due to the administration’s changes to immigration law. She hopes that with this new training she will be better equipped to aid her clients who find themselves in removal cases.
“Luckily, there’s a lot of organizations that do that type of work and we’re able to refer them out, but again they’re overburdened with a huge caseload of their own, so it would be great if we were able to do it ourselves,” she said.
Watson also noted that there are opportunities within WIDEN and elsewhere for non-attorneys to support immigrants facing trials, whether it be acting as a sponsor for an immigrant or donating money or airline miles for immigrants and attorneys to use for their cases.
Masasi said that a common problem she sees within CAIR is a general state of confusion among her clients, as immigration laws are constantly changing.
“The lawyers can’t even keep up let alone the citizens so it’s a really difficult time for them to keep up and understand what the policies are,” Masasi said.
Additionally, often times immigration clients are not even aware that they have a removal order against them, which can get them into even more legal trouble and jeopardize their future immigration status.
Watson said that this is where institutions like Seattle U have a responsibility to protect their community.
“All universities need to be vigilant about what these changes mean for their students,” Watson said. “Making sure that they’re on top of all the policies that are coming down but also speaking with their own internal legal team about what these changes mean for their students and their faculty.”