Every year, thousands of people are forced to face the complex deportation system without an attorney representing them. Now, the immigration courts are seeking to limit the assistance that these individuals can receive from “friend of the court” attorneys.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the agency which includes the nation’s immigration courts, released a memo about the role of attorneys in immigration court. It specifically addresses the role they can have in cases of individuals they are assisting but not fully representing.

The memo, released in November 2019, appears to target programs by legal service providers that provide basic assistance to individuals facing deportation, including children, through attorney-of-the-day programs.

The agency says that these amicus curiae—or friend of the court—attorneys can provide information to the court but cannot take part in legal advocacy on behalf of the individuals facing deportation. The new memo replaces prior guidance that applied specifically to cases involving unaccompanied children.

EOIR’s memo warns that friend of the court attorneys are not allowed to take certain steps on behalf of parties in immigration court. These include filing or accepting legal documents, helping individuals admit to certain facts or legal charges, telling the court that the individuals intend to exercise certain rights, or introducing new issues to the court that neither party has mentioned themselves.

Instead, unrepresented immigrants—even children—must complete these complex and important tasks on their own.

The immigration courts claim that the rules in the memo are intended to make sure that people facing deportation are not confused about different types of attorneys’ roles in their cases. But, to minimize confusion, the immigration courts should encourage more representation, not less.

Currently, people facing deportation who cannot afford an attorney can be deported without any legal assistance at all. Rather than taking steps to ensure that more immigrants receive the legal representation they need to have a fair hearing in immigration court, the new memo makes it even harder for them to navigate the immigration court system.

Notably, the government is already represented by an attorney in every immigration court case, so in practice the memo only impacts attorneys who want to help unrepresented immigrants facing deportation.

The new memo, especially combined with other recent steps to limit access to protections in immigration court, will make the existing imbalance even worse.