June 2016 Bar Bulletin
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June 2016 Bar Bulletin

Friend of the Legal Profession Award:

Jorge L. Barón and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

By Mike Wrenn

 

“I’m frustrated turning people away simply because we don’t have the resources to help them. I want to change that. I want to say yes more.” This was the answer Jorge L. Barón gave when asked during his interview why he wanted to become the executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP).

As a staff attorney in the organization’s Tacoma office, focused exclusively on defending immigrants facing deportation while held at the Northwest Detention Center, Barón knew the clients’ needs well. Because deportation proceedings are considered civil cases, no one is entitled to representation if they cannot afford it, and at the Detention Center approximately 90 percent of the detainees were facing the immigration judge and prosecuting attorney alone.

Barón’s job interview was eight years ago. Under his leadership, NWIRP has thrived. NWIRP has gone from an organization of 37 staff members to 54, and it is serving our community in both broad and deep ways. NWIRP’s work is broad in the fact that it provides direct representation and legal assistance statewide to 10,000 low-
income immigrants from more than 130 countries every year, and deep in the sense that each case makes a transformative impact for the individual and family served.

With NWIRP’s services, unaccompanied children fleeing violence are able to stay safely in the United States. Survivors of domestic violence or human trafficking can access justice and security. Undocumented youth gain work permits and the opportunity to pursue their education and career goals. Those escaping persecution or torture in their home countries find protection. Mothers and fathers facing deportation instead stay together with their families in the country they call home.

From NWIRP’s four offices in Seattle, Tacoma, Granger and Wenatchee, its work to defend immigrant rights is leveraged through its strong pro bono program of more than 350 volunteer attorneys, which makes it the second largest pro bono provider in the state following only KCBA.

It is not only NWIRP’s direct representation work effecting change. NWIRP uses its expertise in direct representation to choose targeted, impact litigation cases that challenge unjust immigration policies. Working with partners, one of NWIRP’s recent class-action victories, Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder, secured the right to an attorney for detained immigrants with mental illness who were facing deportation. Previously, immigrants with mental illness were languishing for months or even years in immigrant detention centers because, without representation, they were in no position to defend themselves in court and judges either continued their cases indefinitely or deported them without due process.

NWIRP has also held the Border Patrol accountable for racial profiling and unwarranted arrests on the Olympic Peninsula, achieved a decision requiring the government to provide bond hearings to certain people detained at the Northwest Detention Center, and challenged the failure of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to provide timely requests for case information under FOIA. And now, NWIRP, along with its partners including the ACLU, K&L Gates and others, is fighting for the right of children to have appointed attorneys in deportation proceedings.

When asked what inspires him about NWIRP’s work, Barón says, “I am motivated by the courage and determination of our clients, the passion and commitment of our staff and volunteers, and the generosity of the community that makes NWIRP’s work possible.”

Barón’s passion for the work is rooted in his own immigrant experience. Barón immigrated to the United States from Colombia at the age of 13. He attended Duke University for his undergraduate degree and spent several years in the film and television industry before attending law school at Yale University. While there, he worked on death penalty cases, human rights matters and immigration issues.

After graduation, Barón clerked for the late Judge Betty B. Fletcher of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Seattle. Barón then served as an Arthur Liman Public Interest Fellow at New Haven Legal Assistance Association in New Haven, Connecticut, before moving back to the Pacific Northwest and starting his position at NWIRP.

As he enters his ninth year as executive director, Barón is saying “Yes” more often, just as he had hoped, to the world walking into NWIRP’s waiting room every day.

“I am grateful to accept, on behalf of the entire NWIRP team, this recognition from KCBA,” Barón said.


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