Since president Donald Trump took office, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project has consistently been in the news fighting federal agencies in court, representing undocumented immigrants in their deportation proceedings, and organizing support for their work in a time of financial uncertainty.
Here, NWIRP legal director Matt Adams answers questions about the nonprofit's evolution and its role today.
How do you think your job has changed with Trump's administration?
"It's become more intense, because the need has just exponentially increased. Before Trump ever came into office, we had a Detention Center Tacoma, where 1,500 people were locked up and 90 percent of them without attorneys. So that hasn't changed. There's always been this overwhelming, this crushing need of legal representation.
Then you have the Trump administration upping the ante."
The irony, though, is that there seems to be a lot more awareness around immigration issues, right?
"I think there is a silver lining. Much of the past three decades, the folks that were engaged in immigrant rights kind of were, I'd say, in the forgotten corners of our justice system. That is, it didn't get a lot of attention. People didn't think about immigrant rights as human rights.
It's one of the areas that I think you have the most concerns of (human) rights being trampled without really receiving the protection that the Constitution and the federal laws should provide. ...Because Trump has made that the first line of attack in his cultural war, it's raised the awareness.
We have seen an outgrowth in support that we've never had before, both from individual donors, from volunteer lawyers...and also from institutions and from governments. The city of Seattle, King County, the state of Washington, they've all stepped up in unprecedented ways."
Have you expanded the number of attorneys you have?
"We have. We are now larger than we've ever been before. When I started working here in 1998, we had 10, or maybe it was nine. (Now) altogether we have about 80 staff members. That's probably triple what it was just a few years ago."
Obviously being a lawyer is a lucrative job. Is it difficult to attract attorneys to the nonprofit sector?
"It certainly presents a challenge. Like there's so many people that go to law school that want to do this, and then they come out of law school with $100,000 or $200,000 dollars in debt."
What's the biggest challenge in representing people at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma?
"They're cut off from their families, from their jobs, from their community. They can't help you contact their cousin or get the documents. ... We might need leases, or school records, or medical records, and they're not in a position to do any of that.
But even worse is that individuals who are locked up there often just become despondent. 'I can't bear to be locked up here anymore, I'm gonna give up on my case.' We see hundreds of individuals who, under our laws, should quality for relief and be able to stay here with their families, but ultimately give up and are deported because they can't stand being locked up any longer.
(One client) was convicted of misdemeanor sexual abuse for fondling the breast of a 14-year-old girl, and he served his sentence, and life went on. Twelve years later, his brother-in-law gets mad at him and sends ICE a letter and says, 'Hey this guy's got a sexual assault conviction on his record.' So ICE goes to his work and arrests him.
At that point he was a licensed social worker for the state of Oregon, and he had a second job on the side working at a homeless shelter. ...He was then placed in deportation proceedings.
After four years we won his case. But in those four years, he lost his job, he lost his wife, ...he started losing his teeth, his vision went bad. I mean, so we won his case, but at what expense?"
So there's not really any restorative justice?
"There's not. It's like, 'Well, in the end you're right. You're not deportable, and here's the clothes you came in with. See ya later.' And that's it."
What do you think needs to change to stop the pattern of companies expanding immigration detention centers?
"We have to get away from this being an industry that's driven by profits. We've got to get away from the mass detention of people in immigration proceedings. These are civil matters; why are we locking them up?
One of the second fundamental flaws is the lack of legal representation. It just makes no sense whatsoever to have a system as complex and adversarial as the immigration courts. With so much at stake—people being permanently separated from their families, people being deported to countries where they've escaped persecution. I mean, we've had multiple clients here at NWIRP that were deported and then killed when they arrived back in their home countries.
The third point I would say is maybe a little more generic and larger scale—the humanization of the immigration system. Right now, it's seen like a football game. People are just trying to score political points. ...I think if we're going to have any real progress, it's gotta be because people started to realize immigrants are humans, are part of our community."