New Year’s Reflections


By Robin Phillips

I love December.  I love it because it brings some of my favorite things – snow and holidays and celebrations with family.  But I also love the quiet time at the end of December that allows for reflection about the past year.  This time of reflection gives me hope for renewal and inspiration in the coming year. I am using this time to reflect on the human rights successes of 2012 and to gear up for the challenges of 2013.

On the national level, we celebrate moving our country one step closer to achieving universal access to health care. With the Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the health care law commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” we can collectively move forward with the plan to expand health care coverage to more people.

And, what a year we’ve had in Minnesota. We are still celebrating the success of the amazing grassroots efforts to defeat two proposed amendments to Minnesota’s constitution. The first was a measure to permanently enshrine discrimination into the Constitution by restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. The second proposed amendment was a cynical attempt to restrict voting disguised as a measure to protect the integrity of the voting process. An amazing group of organizations, companies and individuals came together to defeat these amendments, rejecting discrimination and protecting the fundamental right to vote for all citizens in Minnesota.

We are celebrating other program successes at The Advocates for Human Rights. We published the third edition of our Energy of a Nation curriculum, a comprehensive curriculum designed to educate students about the realities of immigration in the United States and dispel the common myths. This fall, we also published two reports about the implementation of the domestic violence laws in Croatia and Moldova. We trained the legal professionals who implement these laws in several countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and we provided commentary to proposed laws in nearly a dozen other countries. We continue to work with Diaspora communities to bring their human rights concerns to the United Nations and the governments in their home countries. We also work to ensure that Minnesota communities are welcoming to our newest Americans through our One Voice Minnesota Project.

While there is much to celebrate from 2012, we face many challenges going forward. For example, we must hold the United States government accountable for the human rights violations resulting from extra-judicial executions through drone attacks. These attacks violate international law and erode the basic due process protections of the United States Constitution. We must also challenge indefinite detention, with a demand that the most glaring example, Guantanamo, be closed or at a minimum, those held be charged and given the opportunity to present a defense. Prisoners there have now been held for more than ten years without the benefit of even the most basic civil rights protections provided in international law.

It appears that we will have the opportunity to address comprehensive immigration reform in the coming year. We must insist that any fix to the broken immigration system be anchored in human rights and respect the inherent dignity of all individuals living in this country. In addition, we must fight against every attempt to discriminate against human beings in this country based on their immigration status. Attempts to fix due process problems with indefinite detention by limiting the extension of due process protection only to United States citizens or permanent residents violates the spirit if not the letter of the United States Constitution. These same distinctions are being made in the health care, education and access to food and housing. Law and policy related to these fundamental human rights should also acknowledge the shared humanity of all people living in the United States.

We must also continue to work for the elimination of violence against women and girls in the United States and around the world. The recent news of the death of the young medical student who was raped on a bus in India and the shooting of Malala, the young Pakistani girl who spoke out about her right to education, underscore the urgency of this issue. We have made great strides in increasing legal protections and training legal system personnel, but we must work to pass appropriate laws, monitor the implementation of these laws, and fix or improve the laws when they are not working properly.

We are inspired by past successes to meet the human rights challenges in the coming year. At The Advocates for Human Rights, we re-commit to our vision of a world in which all people live with dignity, freedom, justice, equality and peace. In this spirit, we wish you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

Robin Phillips is the Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights

GUEST POST: “I love this school and I love these kids.”

Laura Sandall with seventh and eighth grade students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School

By Laura Sandall 

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School was a very special place for Laura Sandall’s older sister Emily.   A young woman with tremendous spirit and energy, Emily raised money for the school when she herself was still in high school.  A few years later, she seized the opportunity to live in the Sankhu-Palubari community and volunteer at the school for several months.  Emily died, unexpectedly and far too young, in a hiking accident in November 2006.  The Sandall family decided shortly thereafter that they would honor Emily’s legacy by continuing to share her passion for education of the most disadvantaged children.  They created the Emily Sandall Foundation, because, as their foundation’s website says, “In the midst of tragedy comes opportunity”.  The  Emily Sandall Foundation has supported The Advocates’ school in Nepal for more than five years, along with many other educational projects that Emily would have loved.  Laura Sandall and her mother, Becky Sandall, were able to visit (and make their own unique contributions to) the Sankhu-Palubari Community School for the first time in September 2012  as volunteers on The Advocates’ team.  Here, in our first guest post on The Advocates Post, Laura shares her thoughts about the Sankhu-Palubari Community School.  ~ Jennifer Prestholdt

I wasn’t sure how I would feel pulling up to the Sankhu-Palubari Community School for the first time. Emily had loved the school dearly since she was in high school, raising money on her own to support the kids in Sankhu.  She would carry around a milk carton during high school and collect change and send it off to the school.  She even helped me do a presentation at my own middle school and we raised a hundred dollars.  She was so passionate about these kids’ education.

Sankhu is a very poor village located outside of Kathmandu, Nepal.  The Sankhu school began in 1999 when a group in Minnesota wanted to give these kids a chance at a great education  Luckily, my mom and I were able to visit the school with this group from Minnesota, The Advocates for Human Rights.  They are a group of very intelligent, very passionate people who have worked so hard to support this school and with the help of a local Nepali organization called Educate the Children, they have all been able to make this school very successful and to be able to give children an amazing education.

The kids that enroll in Sankhu are at a very low caste, their parents are mostly farmers and most of their parents cannot read or write.  The children, due to their families’ low income, would normally be doing labor if it weren’t for this school.  Many of them were child laborers before this school was started.  Now, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School enrolls over 300 students, ranging from nursery to 10th grade.  These kids who would have been working in a farm or making bricks now can read and write and have a chance to get a great education.

I knew all of this before visiting the school but I wasn’t prepared for the emotions of actually seeing it. I was able to meet the children in all of the different grades, meet their teachers, meet the headmaster of the school and see all of the classrooms.  I was able to interview over 15 students and ask them detailed questions about their families and about what this school means to them.  I was even able to lead a nutrition class for the 7th and 8th graders and teach them about the importance of eating well. I also lead a few classes on reading.

I felt closer to Emily the past week then I have in many years.  Seeing the kids and having them tell me firsthand how this school has changed their lives and how grateful they are to have our support meant the absolute world to me. These kids are special.  Some of them walk over 2 hours a day each way to come to class and many of them work before and after school to help their parents with their farms and with housework.  They are incredibly dedicated children in their studies and with their families.

Although the children in this school are the poorest of the poor in this village, they have done extremely well in school and 100% of the 10th grade students passed the SLC exam, which far exceeds most of the other schools in the surrounding area and Kathmandu.  They are all so happy to be getting an education.  And to hear one of the students tell me that if it wasn’t for the school, he would be making bricks and not be able to read or write is very moving and shows how important education is to these children.

I love this school and I love these kids.  And even after ten years since Emily lived in Nepal and volunteered at the school, her presence there is still very strong.  Many of the older kids remember Emily and told us she was their favorite teacher.  One of the teachers who still works there was one of Emily’s close friends and had the children in her class sing us Emily’s favorite Nepali song. And the headmaster of the school called Emily his best friend and reminisced about her dancing and singing and her passion for helping disadvantaged youth.  It’s amazing how she touched so many people and after all these years, she is still remembered so fondly and so loved by so many people at the school.

She continues to awe me in her love for life and her love for people and her love for helping others.  I am still so proud of what Em did in her short life and I also am so proud to be a part of the Sankhu school. The kids were so polite, so willing to learn, so excited about their education and their futures.  To know that if it wasn’t for this school, they would be child laborers and would have completely different futures.  To see the graduates of the 10th grade continuing on in their education, wanting to be doctors or teachers, and applying to universities.  Many of the students said that after graduating university, they would want to come back to their village and help the people in need.

I know Emily was there with us as we sang with the kids, asked them questions, and as I taught my own classes to the 7th and 8th graders.  I know that she would be so happy that we saw the school that was a catalyst for her passion of helping child laborers.  Even though she is gone, Em is still challenging me to see new places and to help others in need and for that I will always be grateful.

Volunteers Laura and Rebecca Sandall with students.
Volunteers Laura and Rebecca Sandall with students.

The Right Thing to Do

iStock image1

by Deepinder Singh Mayell

“The time to fix our broken immigration system is now.”  President Obama made this statement on the Senate floor in May 2007.  Over five years later, “now” might be getting a little closer.  With a large Latino turnout being credited as a key part of President Obama’s re-election this November, immigration reform is poised to take center stage in the national spotlight in the coming years.  Of newcomers to the United States, the President stated, “it is the constant flow of immigrants that help make America what it is. […] To this day America reaps incredible economic rewards because we remain a magnet for the best and brightest from across the globe.”[1] Both parties are changing their tone and easing their anti-immigrant rhetoric and on June 15, 2012, President Obama signed a memo calling for deferred action for certain undocumented young people who came to the United States as children.

But despite the improvement in the political climate, it is important to note that immigrants have faced an increasingly hostile environment in the last several years and a policy of rampant enforcement that is alarming.   The policies regarding deportation and detention have resulted in the unfair punishment of thousands seeking a new life in the United States.

  • Since 2009, the average number of deportations per year is about 400,000 which is double the annual average during George W. Bush’s first term and thirty per cent more that the average when he left office.[2]
  • In 2011, Minnesota deported 3,215 individuals which is nearly a fifty per cent increase from 2006.[3]
  • In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants, including children, in over 250 facilities across the country, and currently maintains a daily capacity of 33,400 beds [4]
  • About half of all immigrants held in detention have no criminal record at all.[5]

These policies are also not consistent with international human rights law.[6] For example, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), non-citizens within the United States have the right to liberty and security of person, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, and are entitled to prompt review of their detention by an independent court.[7] The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants has reported that “the United States detention and deportation system for migrants lacks the kinds of safeguards that prevent certain deportation decisions and the detention of certain immigrants from being arbitrary within the ICCPR.”[8]

The conditions in detention facilities can be appalling and detainees have complained about grossly inadequate health care, physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, and discrimination.[9]  In addition, NGOs have reported the use of shackling, tasers, and solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes and the lack of proper medication, nutrition, and recreation.[10]  The immigrants The Advocates works with, people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries and hoping to gain asylum in the United States, are particularly vulnerable.  Asylum seekers are often victims of violence, sexual assault, and torture and being held in a prison-like setting can have significant long-term mental health consequences.

Although The Advocates’ asylum program does far better than the average in helping people obtain asylum, the asylum grant rate in our Immigration Court is one of the lowest in the country at seventeen percent, while the national average is sixty-one percent.[11] Persons seeking asylum often have to wait up to three years to have their cases decided by a judge.  Meanwhile, they cannot reunite with their families who they have often left behind when escaping the horrors of persecution and torture.

Recently, President Obama stated, “As long as I’m president, I will not give up on this issue, not only because it’s the right thing to do for our economy … not just because it’s the right thing to do for our security, but because it’s the right thing to do period.”[12] It is more important than ever, in this changing environment, for those who believe in positive immigration reform to push to define “the right thing to do.”  The Advocates for Human Rights has advocated locally and nationally to ensure the rights of thousands of immigrants and has stood against mandatory detention.  In the coming years, The Advocates will continue to push to change our immigration system so that it does not focus on punishment and imprisonment but instead secures dignity, fairness, and human rights for all.

What you can go to get involved:

Call your Congressperson to tell them it is time to create fair and humane immigration laws and procedures that reflect international norms of human rights.

Volunteer for The Advocates as pro bono counsel to represent low-income asylum seekers from Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The Advocates has been doing this work for almost thirty years and has mentor attorneys and resources to help you.  If you are an attorney or interpreter and would like to help on an asylum case please contact Sarah Brenes at

Donate to The Advocates to support the asylum program and the other work we do to help immigrants. These new Americans make valuable contributions to our communities and culture, are committed to our country, and have the same human rights as our immigrant ancestors did.

Join the Detention Watch Network!  The Advocates is a steering committee member of the Detention Watch Network which is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to educate the public and policy makers about the immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for humane reform so that all who come to our shores receive fair and humane treatment.  Click here to get involved:

Deepinder Singh Mayell is the Director of the Refugee & Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

[2] Executive Office for Immigration Review, FY2011 Statistical Yearbook, February 2012

[6] See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, arts. 2, 7, 9, 10, 13, and 14.

[7] ICCPR, art. 9.

[8] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, ¶ 24 (2008).

[11] Executive Office for Immigration Review, FY2011 Statistical Year Book, February 2012

Working Together for Women’s Human Rights in Moldova

Report launch in Moldova

By Mary Ellingen

Chisinau, Moldova, is a place where the Soviet footprint is still visible. Stray dogs greet you at the airport. Tall, half-destroyed bloc apartments are the first buildings you see on your way into town. People live there, and lots of them, to judge from the laundry flapping out over each unfurnished balcony. The trees in the shabby but gracious old city are whitewashed from their roots up nearly three feet to encourage their growth. Most of the buildings are one or two stories in various states of disrepair, with the formerly lovely intricate stucco trim now crumbling. But I don’t let the appearance of things fool me—the people and government of Moldova are making real progress on protecting and advancing women’s rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights is here, at the invitation of our local partner, to launch our newest report, “Implementation of the Republic of Moldova’s Domestic Violence Legislation.” The report is the product of three weeks in 9 cities and rayons, 67 interviews with 130 people, and a year’s research and writing. The study was funded by The Advocates’ donors, who are working to stop violence against women in Moldova. There is also a strong UN and other international organization and government presence in Chisinau: UNFPA, UNICEF, OSCE, IOM, to name a few. All of them want Moldova to advance along the path to democracy and financial independence.  Moldova’s economic woes are beyond the scope of our project, but suffice it to say that the Soviets named Moldova the wine-producer for the entire Soviet Union and failed to encourage diversification.  Wine is still a local triumph and regional export, but it is not able to carry the Moldovan economy, and the country remains one of the poorest in Europe.

Our report’s focus, domestic violence, has likely been impacted by the struggling economy. A 2011 study conducted by the Moldovan National Statistics Bureau found that 64% of women here have been victims of physical, economic, or psychological violence. That’s a very high statistic– most other sources say 25-30% of women are victims worldwide. The Moldovans passed a good law a few years ago but are struggling to implement it so that it really does protect women, despite ground-breaking leadership with their codification of a coordinated community response. The coordinated community response means that multi-disciplinary teams are formed to meet the specific needs of victims in five regions of the country. When it works, it works well.

Our local partner arranged two events for the launch of our report: an official presentation at the Commission for Gender Equality, presided over by the Deputy Prime Minister and broadcast live on TV, and an all-day roundtable discussion the next day, to which the international organizations, government officials, and people who work on the front lines with victims were invited. That first meeting at the Commission consisted of all government folks, and some were just the right high-level ones you’d want to hear your findings: the Minister of Social Protection, Labour and the Family, for instance, who has decision-making power to fund and staff many more shelters and crisis centers, desperately needed in this country, where there are only 106 shelter beds for 3.5 million people. The next day, the room on the 6th floor of the Ministry of Labour, Social Protection and Family was packed with people around the table cluttered with the microphones, cords, and headphones necessary for simultaneous translation.  Twenty other people sat on chairs around the edge of the room. Turns out those people on the edges were the international donors: OSCE, the Norwegian government, IOM, Winrock, and the U.S. Embassy. The people at the table were the ones on the ground: a judge, a police officer, a prosecutor, the legal assistance coordinator, and several lawyers who serve victims.  Of course, there were many service providers, who work every day to find a bed for a woman in crisis, who set up the multi-disciplinary teams, who help a victim get an order for protection and find safety from a violent offender.

We talked about the report in more detail that day– outlining all of our findings and telling the stories of victims we’d heard from many small villages, a prison, and the few large urban areas like Chisinau.  We tried to make the law’s problems come alive with each victim’s story. Each time we stated a “finding of concern” we made a corresponding recommendation to the Parliament, the police, the judiciary, or the service providers themselves. As we had hoped, our presentation rapidly changed from a PowerPoint into a vibrant dialogue with the professionals at the table. These were their jobs we were describing. They clarified points of interest; proudly informed us of improvements made since our report, and at times challenged our findings, always respectfully. They nodded when they heard our explanations, recommendations, made suggestions, and took detailed notes. We had to be reminded to take a coffee break, and soon to head across the street for lunch.

After lunch, despite the beautiful Friday afternoon, the interest of the stakeholders around the table hadn’t lagged. Once again, we were in the thick of a wonderful give-and-take. In the afternoon we skipped our coffee break completely.

While the obstacles are huge, we have a sense that leaders here in Moldova are accepting real responsibility for stopping violence against women. They are ready to step up to fight for legislative change, for more resources for shelter beds, and for training at all levels of the government response —  all to make victims of violence safer in Moldova. The motto of our Moldovan partner, the Women’s LawCenter, is “Advancing Women’s Rights Together.” The people we have worked with here are doing just that.

Mary Ellingen is a staff attorney with Women’s Human Rights Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.