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Representing Women Seeking Asylum in the US: Gender-Based Persecution

In reSVAW logo copypresenting several women seeking asylum in the US based on gender-based persecution, I have learned a lot and had some of my most memorable experiences as a lawyer.

  • “Nancy” is a woman from Guinea who was subjected to female genital mutilation at thirteen, and again at fourteen, and then the victim of persistent violence and rape by her husband that family, friends, her doctor, and the police were unable or unwilling to stop. She twice fled the country, but her husband found her and forced her to return home, which only led to escalating violence and prolonged imprisonment.  Her family counseled her to “accept” this treatment, and the police refused to intervene because her husband was a high ranking member of the military police.  She escaped to the US, was granted asylum, and is working to reunite with her children.
  • “Donna” is a woman from Cameroon who was the victim of levirate marriage. She was viewed as property of the family, since a dowry had been paid, so after her husband died she was required to marry one of her brothers-in-law.  When she refused, she was sexually assaulted, told she would “get used to it,” and her family and business were threatened.  She escaped to the US, was granted asylum, and has reunited with her children.
  • “Janet” is a woman from Kenya who was the victim of female genital mutilation. She was seeking protection for herself, and also to prevent having to take her daughter back to Kenya where her family would require that her daughter also undergo female genital mutilation.  She was granted withholding of removal, so that she and her daughter are safe in the US.
  • “Francis” is a woman from The Gambia who was the victim of female genital mutilation, and who sought to avoid a forced marriage to a much older man. She had secretly acted as an activist working to educate people about the risks of female genital mutilation, and her mother, at great risk to herself, persuaded her father to let Francis pursue her education.  In order to prevent the forced marriage, and to continue her education, she came to the US, sought and was granted asylum.

The primary reason these awful things happened to my clients is because they are women.  Female genital mutilation, forced marriage, levirate marriage, and ongoing domestic violence continues to happen because in some places women and girls are not viewed as fully human, endowed with the same rights as men. We should be proud that our legal system rejected that view, and instead found affirming their basic human rights worthy of protection.

A recent decision from the Attorney General has proposed to make it more difficult for women fleeing gender-based violence to get protection in the US. In Matter of A-B, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018), the Attorney General invoked a rarely used power to certify to himself a case for decision so that he could change the law in this area.  In the case, the primary issue that had been litigated was whether the applicant was credible, and the Department of Homeland Security even had agreed that private violence like domestic violence that a government cannot or will not control can be a proper basis for asylum.  The Attorney General, however, reached out to decide a broader issue, which was whether, and under what circumstances, being a victim of private criminal activity constitutes a cognizable “particular social group” for purposes of an application for asylum or withholding of removal.  Though the holding of the decision narrowly overruled a previously-decided case from the Board of Immigration Appeals the Attorney General, largely through dicta, articulated and encouraged a very restrictive view of asylum law.  The decision posits that violence inflicted by private actors, rather than governments, is generally not the type of persecution that our asylum laws were intended to address.

There are many flaws, procedural and substantive, with the decision.  The odd procedure of the case suggests that the Attorney General was searching for a vehicle to render broad policy pronouncements to restrict asylum law.  The decision states that it is not minimizing the “vile abuse” that the woman in the case suffered in the form of domestic violence by her ex-husband.  Unfortunately, the way it elevates form over substance and erects barriers for women who have been so victimized suggests otherwise.  Most fundamentally, it applies a feeble, restrictive view of asylum law, somehow drawing perceived comfort from the rather hollow observation that “the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

I believe that gender-based persecution is indeed the type of harm that our asylum laws should work to address.  It is well-established in international law that states have an obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, and punish actions by private actors. The U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) states that governments are urged to “exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by privates persons” (Art. 4(c)). General Recommendation No. 19 by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also provides that states may be “responsible for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence.” In my experience, allowing the asylum laws to protect people deprived of their basic human rights by private actors because of their gender is a powerful way for this country to stand up for the dignity of all people.  When we see this harm not as mere private acts of violence but as systematic persecution, we affirm the importance of human rights for all people.  The Attorney General’s decision, which seeks to set aside years of development of the law in order to make it more difficult for women to obtain protection, is misguided.  It will make it more difficult for women like the ones that I’ve represented to be safe and free.

The decision will make it harder, but certainly not impossible, to win these cases.  There are still helpful cases from Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country that support gender-based claims from private actor persecution.  Advocates may need to present more arguments and evidence that demonstrate governments’ failure to prevent the harms inflicted by private actors.  Use of expert witnesses to present this evidence may also be needed in more cases.  While the Attorney General’s decision is a significant setback, there are still many claims based on private actor persecution that should prevail.

In 1788, George Washington wrote “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”  We know, however, that the history of the US regarding the protection of refugees has been uneven, vacillating between openness and prioritizing human rights to times where we have turned our backs to the persecuted and failed to live up to our country’s ideals.  At times like this when we fall back, lawyers can make a difference by standing up for victims of human rights abuses.  By helping asylum seekers overcome the new hurdles placed by the Attorney General, and hopefully restoring the law to embody greater respect for freedom and human rights, we can enlist ourselves on the right side of history.  I am so glad that Nancy, Donna, Janet, Francis and others like them are safe.  But today asylum seekers, particularly women who have been victims of private actor violence, are going to need help more than ever.

Dean Eyler is Principal and Intellectual Property Litigation Chair at Gray Plant Mooty and a volunteer attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Dignity for All: World Day Against the Death Penalty highlights detention conditions on death row

“The best way to ensure someone does not leave prison is to make him into the person he was prosecuted as.” – Damon Thibodeaux, exoneree who spent 15 years on Louisiana’s death row

Imagine living in a 8 by 10 foot room with a steel or concrete slab for a bed.  The door is solid steel and the food tray slot at the bottom offers the only source of contact with the rest of the world. These are the kinds of conditions that many death row inmates in the United States endure for 23 hours a day. The Advocates highlighting the brutal living conditions for people on death row at a Continuing Legal Education event on October 10, the 16th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. The event was hosted at the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron. During this talk, speakers contrasted current conditions in U.S. prisons with the minimum standards set by the Nelson Mandela Rules. Their presentations highlighted the physical and psychological consequences of those conditions on people sentenced to death in the United States.

The Nelson Mandela Rules, formerly known as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, outline prison standards with relation to disciplinary measures, legal representation, and medical treatment. Amy Bergquist, staff attorney at The Advocates and Vice- President of The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, explained these rules and gave examples describing how they are seldom followed here in the United States and in other countries. For example, Rules 24-29 state that inmates have the right to access the same quality of healthcare that is available in the general community outside the prison. In many countries, including the U.S., healthcare for detained people is, however, grossly neglected in order to keep costs low. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ chief psychiatrist, close to 40% of inmates have mental illness while only 3% of them are being treated regularly. These services are typically provided only to inmates who had been diagnosed and were receiving treatment prior to their arrest, while people who develop symptoms or are diagnosed in prison are often overlooked.

When combining the substandard health care system in prisons with solitary confinement, prisoners are set up to play a self-fulfilling prophecy. Damon Thibodeaux, an exoneree who survived 15 years on Louisiana’s death row, described this degrading treatment during the World Day event.  He stated, “It is meant to break you down morally, mentally, and physically. It is meant to tear you down so they can paint you as the inhuman animal.” He detailed the unbearable heat in his small, unairconditioned cell during Louisiana summers, when the only way to cool off was to strip down and lie on the floor. Thibodeaux also described the communicable diseases that spread through the prison because of overcrowding. He explained that these diseases would often go untreated because inmates had to pay to see a healthcare provider and often faced long delays before receiving treatment.

Also speaking at the event was Lisa Borden, Baker Donelson’s Pro Bono Shareholder and an attorney who represents indigent death row inmates. Borden also described the prison conditions she has witnessed in the Alabama state prison system. She is currently representing detained clients in a class action lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections. The district court found the mental health care services provided to prisoners are “horrendously inadequate”. One of the key problems, as Borden explained, is the privatization of healthcare in the prison system. Since the private health care providers are allocated a set amount of funding per person, they have an incentive to keep their costs low by using fewer resources.

Borden also shared the extreme conditions that prisoners who are not in solitary confinement routinely face. “Most facilities house 150-200% of the number of people for which they are designed.” These overcrowded conditions are worsened by staffing shortages, with some prisons having less than 40% of the recommended prison staff.  In addition, prisons in Alabama are old, with dilapidated structures.  Borden shared an account where a prisoner died in his cell after his neighboring cellmate reported his unresponsiveness. Due to the prison’s malfunctioning electronic locking system, the officers were not able to reach him until 30 minutes after they were notified.

This event highlighted the human rights violations faced by people sentenced to death, as well as by other detained individuals, in the United States. To learn more about living conditions on death row around the world, see http://www.worldcoalition.org/worldday.html

By Elshaday Yilma, Lutheran Volunteer Corps member and The Advocates’ International Justice Program Assistant

United States General Assembly. (2016). United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules). Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/GA-RESOLUTION/E_ebook.pdf

United States Department of Justice. (2017). Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Use of Restrictive Housing for Inmates with Mental Illness. Retrieved from https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2017/e1705.pdf

University of Texas School of Law Human Rights Clinic. (2017). Designed to Break You: Human Rights Violations on Texas’ Death Row. Retrieved from https://law.utexas.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2017/04/2017-HRC-DesignedToBreakYou-Report.pdf

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Remembering and Honoring Our Remarkable Friend and Advocate, Marlene Kayser

Marlene Kayser

 

 

“My travels with The Advocates began with a trip to Beijing, China, in 1995, for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. Experiencing the hope, beauty, determination, and power of the women there inspired me. I came home committed to work even harder for women’s rights.” – Marlene Kayser

 

 

 

 

We have lost an amazing Advocates’ family member, Marlene Kayser. Marlene served on the board, co-chaired our Women’s Program advisory committee, and volunteered for more than 20 years. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization and no one exemplified this value more than Marlene. Starting with our delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, Marlene set the gold standard for volunteers. That event was an extraordinary gathering of women from every corner of the world. One of our goals was to learn as much as we could about the global women’s human rights movement. Marlene was a master connector and networker. She helped us establish and foster relationships that are still an important part of our work today.

Marlene was a tireless advocate. She rolled up her sleeves and got the work done at the same time inspiring the rest of us to keep going. Marlene worked in countries transitioning to democracy after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. She worked with us in Bulgaria to document sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. On another trip we documented domestic violence and the government’s response in Macedonia. The resulting reports from this research were used in advocacy to pass important new laws and policies protecting women in both of these countries.

Marlene was masterful in sharing her own experience with advocacy, organizing and fundraising. She also shared creative ideas with the rest of us that improved all our training skills. She was part of laying the groundwork for the amazing network of activists in the region today.

For more than 20 years, Marlene has helped steer our fundraising efforts at The Advocates. No job was too big or too small. She modeled the successful house party organizing that we now use with all of our programs.

Marlene took on making the silent auction at our annual awards dinner world class. She had the unique gift of knowing exactly what will appeal to people of all ages. It came to be known that “Marlene is always right.” Her baskets and item selections always got the most or highest bids.

It is not enough to work hard, but as Marlene taught us, we have a lot to learn from those who have more experience and we need to respect that expertise.

We will miss Marlene dearly.