In the early 1980s, hundreds of Central American asylum seekers arrived in the Seattle area, fleeing the civil wars that plagued that region then. At the time, there was no nonprofit organization focused on providing legal assistance to immigrants and refugees and so many of these individuals had no place to turn to as they sought help to navigate an asylum process that had been created only a few years before.
A number of community members, including immigration attorneys, members of faith communities, and union members came together to try to coordinate a response. The fruit of their collaboration was a volunteer-run effort that was initially called the Joint Legal Task Force for Central American Refugees. Over time, this small volunteer effort became what is now Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP).
Since those early days, NWIRP has grown to become the largest nonprofit law firm in the Western United States that is exclusively focused on immigration law. NWIRP now serves community members throughout Washington State from four offices: two offices in Eastern Washington in Granger (in the Yakima Valley) and Wenatchee; its Seattle office that serves most of Western Washington; and an office in Tacoma that is primarily focused on serving individuals detained by immigration officers at the Northwest Detention Center.
NWIRP serves approximately 10,000 individuals each year with its clients coming from over 120 different countries.
Most of NWIRP’s work focuses on helping individuals navigate the immigration system to help them obtain or retain immigration protections. NWIRP’s asylum program helps individuals who are trying to pursue protections because they fear persecution in their home countries.
NWIRP’s VAWA Unit (named after the Violence Against Women Act) assists survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other serious crimes to obtain protections under our immigration laws.
NWIRP also has a strong citizenship program that helps lawful permanent residents complete the naturalization process, with a particular focus on those who face barriers to U.S. citizenship, including people with disabilities.
NWIRP’s family services unit provides assistance to those who are trying to petition for family members to be able to obtain immigration status in the United States And NWIRP’s children and youth program provides legal services to unaccompanied youth and other children who qualify for humanitarian forms of protection in the United States.
A significant portion of NWIRP’s direct representation work is focused on those who are facing deportation proceedings (now known as “removal proceedings”) before the immigration courts. Despite the serious consequences that come with deportation, individuals do not have a right to appointed attorneys in immigration court: one can bring an attorney to court if one can afford one but there is no guarantee of one as there is in a criminal case. This means that many people are forced to try to represent themselves before an immigration judge. The situation is particularly problematic for those who are facing deportation proceedings while detained: in recent years, only 8% of those non-citizens who have gone through deportation proceedings at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma have been represented by an attorney. NWIRP is one of the critical resources in responding to this need for legal assistance, a need that is certain to be more urgent as the incoming presidential administration has promised to increase significantly the number of deportation cases.
In addition to its direct services in individual cases, NWIRP also has a robust systemic advocacy program that seeks to change unjust systems and policies in the immigration system. As an example of this type of advocacy, NWIRP is currently co-counsel with a number of national partners in a class action case that seeks to require the federal government to provide attorneys for children facing deportation hearings. Because, yes, even children are not entitled to appointed attorneys in immigration court. NWIRP and its partners hope that this litigation will change this clear injustice.
Finally, NWIRP is engaged in ongoing community education efforts, efforts that are particularly important at a time like this one when there is so much uncertainty about the state of immigration policy. NWIRP runs Immigration 101 trainings for social service providers who work with immigrant and refugee communities and know-your-rights presentations and legal workshops for immigrant community members.
To learn more about NWIRP’s work and how to access its services, you can visit their website at www.nwirp.org or call its Seattle office at (206) 587-4009.