Friday, September 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Northwest Immigrant Rights Project turns 20

Seattle Times staff reporter

Rights project

20th anniversary celebration

The northwest Immigrant Rights Project celebrates its 20th anniversary tomorrow night with a dinner and auction. The group will pay tribute to Dr. Richard Kovar of Physicians for Human Rights and Country Doctor Medical Clinic; the Legal Foundation of Washington; the National Sanctuary Movement; the Joint Legal Task Force and the Perkins, Coie law firm.

U.S. Immigration laws and regulations

1952: Congress re-codes and combines all immigration and naturalization laws into the Immigration and Nationality Act.

1965:Congress amends the 1952 immigration law, replacing the national origins system with a preference system designed to reunite immigrant families and attract skilled immigrants to the United States.

1980: The Refugee Act sets a general policy governing the admission of refugees to the United States.

1986: Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, authorities enforce sanctions against employers who hire undocumented immigrants; step up enforcement at U.S. borders; allow certain workers to gain legal status; increases the number of visas available for certain immigrants.

1996: Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, deportation is sped up and admission requirements are made more stringent; detention space for criminal immigrants is increased; asylum seekers must file their petitions within one year of arrival; criminal penalties are increased for immigration-related offenses.

1999: The Executive Office for Immigration Review streamlines the Board of Immigration Appeals. A single BIA member can review and affirm a case without issuing an opinion.

2001: Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy requires all immigration judges to close immigration hearings in which detainees are deemed of "special interest."

2002: The number of members on the Board of Immigration Appeals is reduced from 19 to 11. A single board member has 90 days to either decide a case or refer it to a three-member panel for review.

2003: Under Operation Liberty Shield, asylum applicants from nations with known terrorist groups are placed in detention while their paperwork is processed.

2003: After 70 years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is dismantled into three offices under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security

Source: Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Executive Office for Immigration Review; Center for Immigration Studies; U.S. Committee for Refugees; American Civil Liberties Union

Florangela Davila

Immigration laws are inherently complicated. In a 1987 case, judges with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: "With only a small degree of hyperbole, the immigration laws have been termed second only to the Internal Revenue Code in complexity. A lawyer is often the only person who could thread the labyrinth."

Yet those who wind up in immigration court most likely won't have an attorney. Immigration violations are civil violations so defendants aren't entitled to a court-appointed attorney.

For 20 years , the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project has acted as voice and muscle for those seeking refuge in the United States, seeking permanent status, seeking the right to work here. Known as "NWIRP," the group is the only nonprofit in the state providing deportation defense.

What started as a one-person shop assisting asylum seekers from El Salvador and Guatemala now has 28 employees, offices in Seattle and in Granger, Yakima County; and a widely heralded reputation.

"The nature of their work is so important, so powerfully needed," said Pat Arthur, director of the Institutions Project at Columbia Legal Services.

People fleeing from persecution around the world "seek relief (here). NWIRP really fills a void so they get a fair shake in this country," added Eric Jones, a Seattle immigration attorney and a member of the American Bar Association's Commission on Immigration.

NWIRP estimates it has served 200,000 clients in a wide range of cases: citizenship, refugee, asylum, deportation, domestic violence, family reunification and custody.

NWIRP attorneys work with private attorneys to take on cases pro-bono. The demand for service is always great.

"It's like drinking out of a firehose," said staffer Jonathan Moore.

To chronicle NWIRP's history is to take note of a U.S. immigration system that is increasingly strained, significantly different and continually a point of contention between those who argue the system is too lax — and others who say it is too harsh.

In recent interviews, current and former NWIRP staffers weighed in on their world of immigration. Some excerpts:

Sarah Ignatius, former NWIRP executive director; now executive director of the Political Asylum Immigration Representation Project in Boston:

"Our clients were Central Americans, almost exclusively Salvadorans and Guatemalans. This was in the late 1980s. We grew and we started to expand into other areas besides asylum. ... At the time, you could be eligible for legalization if you had been here before Jan. 1, 1982, or if you had done 90 days of farm work. It sounds so open now. The theory was (the U.S.) would give people an amnesty and there would be an authorized work force.

"The laws now are so harsh and punitive against people who don't have legal status.

"It's become even more restrictive. The laws are tougher and the attitudes of decision makers have become so suspicious. And while we do have to be alert toward terrorism, it seems like there's an overreaction."

Jonathan Moore, a NWIRP accredited representative: "We were once known as the Northwest Immigrant Legal Services. One problem, though, was when you say it in Spanish. It sounded like we were the Immigration Service. There were a couple of times people called for the INS and they were trying to turn in their neighbor.

"If you look at immigration without any sense of history, you say people are coming and you see it as imposition. But if you look at history, you realize how often (the U.S.) has been involved in those countries. How they've intervened heavily. Some migration flows are products of U.S. policy."

Matt Adams, legal director for NWIRP in Granger: "Normally, a person goes to the immigration judge in Seattle. If we lose there and the person wants to fight, we go to the BIA (Board of Immigration Appeals). There used to be 19 people on the board. It's been cut to 11. There used to be three-person panels reviewing cases. Now a majority of the cases are being reviewed by one member.

"As a consequence you have families being torn apart with no meaningful review and more cases than ever are going to federal court."

Jay Stansell, former NWIRP attorney; now a federal public defender in Seattle: "I had this wonderful string of people who made mistakes and then got their lives together. There was a guy named Jesus. He was 70 at the time. He'd been in the U.S. since 1949 — an undocumented Mexican for decades.

"There's an unusual form of relief called registry — if you prove you've been here an extraordinary length of time, you can get a green card. Jesus was illiterate. It was difficult to gather documentation to prove he had been in the country that long. But Jesus got his green card. I have a picture of him holding up his green card in my office.

"This is the classic, positive side of what the general public views as 'illegal aliens.' He absolutely stayed out of trouble. He worked year after year, under the table, minimum wage. It's an astounding story. There are tens of thousands of stories like Jesus."

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or

Information in this article, originally published September 17, was corrected October 1. Pat Arthur directs the Institutions Project at Columbia Legal Services in Seattle. A previous version of this story about the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project incorrectly identified her as executive director of the organization.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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