Grantee Spotlight

Fighting Injustice through Statewide Systemic Advocacy

By Kristin Parker

Dear Civil Legal Aid Supporters:

Columbia Legal Services (CLS) continues focusing on immigrant rights, protecting youth, and challenging our justice system to ensure fair treatment for all. Discover more about our recent collective success building a more inclusive and equitable society across Washington State.

Protecting Immigrant Rights

  1. The Constitution matters:  CLS attorneys obtained a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to stop Yakima County from keeping people in jail based solely on an administrative warrant from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The federal judge found it was likely that the County’s practice violated the Fourth Amendment, because it had no authority to detain individuals. This ruling has the potential to curb unlawful immigration enforcement across the nation. The TRO remains in place pending the defendant’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Oral argument should be set within the next few months.
  2. Access to our courts for all:  Many people without documented immigration status avoid going to court for fear of reprisal. This can include victims of crime and discrimination, parents trying to protect their children, or others trying to access the justice system. To address this problem, CLS attorneys working with allies filed a proposed evidentiary rule with the Washington Supreme Court to exclude immigration status in court proceedings. The Court approved the rule in November 2017. Washington is one of the first states in the country to adopt this type of evidentiary rule. “If you have immigration status evidence,” CLS staff attorney Joe Morrison told the Seattle Times, “it can overtake people’s views… [Juries] end up having people make decisions on an emotional reaction instead of what the court has told them the law and facts are.”

Protecting Children and Youth

  1. Fighting for immigrant children:  We successfully helped advance state legislation to create a pathway in Washington for young immigrants who are abused, abandoned, or neglected, and cannot reunite with a parent to apply for federal Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. See our report, Immigrant Youth in Crisis, to discover more.
  2. Treat children like children:  Our attorneys began investigating allegations that children held at the King County Regional Justice Center were being placed in isolation for weeks and months with little human contact and few educational or other services, like mental health treatment, which is in violation of the U.S. Constitution and King County policy. “These are not hardened criminals,” CLS attorney Nick Straley told KOMO news. “These are children and the county should be treating them accordingly.” Shortly after filing the lawsuit, the King County Executive enacted an executive order banning the practice.

Fighting for Fair Treatment

  1. Fair access to hospital care:  In response to how hospitals across Washington were falling short of serving patients most in need, CLS issued a report on charity care in Washington, demonstrating and revealing that people who speak Spanish are treated differently than their English speaking counterparts when seeking financial assistance to pay for hospital care. Our investigation found only 28% of Spanish-language callers were offered any information from the hospital about financial assistance when calling the main hospital number, but information was relayed 90% of the time to English speaking callers. When she was denied financial assistance by a hospital, one person said, “I thought it was because I was a Latina and they didn’t want to help us.” Following this report, we contacted the hospitals with inadequate policies. Based upon the report, several have changed their policies.
  2. Providing Fair Chance Housing for all:  Our organization tirelessly advocated, alongside community partners, to prevent and end the use of criminal records in the tenant screening process. The practice of denying housing on this basis disproportionately impacts communities of color and other marginalized communities that are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. In August, the Seattle City Council passed the strongest ordinance in the country. Council Member Sally Bagshaw supported this policy because, “When people are released from behind bars without housing, they are ‘doomed to the spin cycle’ of crime as they struggle to survive on the street.”

CLS could not do this important work in our communities without our partners and supporters, including the financial support of the Legal Foundation of Washington. We are excited to continue fighting for fairness for all people throughout all aspects of the legal system.

Thank you,


Merf Ehman
Executive Director
Columbia Legal Services