Freedom

FeaturedFreedom

…it seems that the concept of freedom no longer has a consensus understanding among the American people.  What’s more, we have lost our ability to engage in debate, a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. 

Until recently, I had not visited Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty.  Working with immigrants and asylum seekers has thus far defined my professional career, but my visit to Lady Liberty served as a reminder about our nation’s concept of freedom. The audio guide (love this modern invention) shared many new facts about Lady Liberty, reinforced ones commonly known and challenged visitors to define the statue’s significance to them.

At its inception in 1886, the Statue of Liberty was built as a sort of nod from the French to the United States which was, by then, a century-old democracy with a bright future, having recently withstood a civil war.

She was built filled with symbols: her torch as a sign of enlightenment; her sun ray crown sharing her light with the rest of the world; her tablet of laws symbolizing the importance of the rule of law; and at her feet, broken chains as a sign of freedom from slavery and political oppression.

A powerful part of the statue’s story is that the significance of her symbols has changed alongside U.S. history, a true sign of her aspirational nature.

In her early years, Lady Liberty was a symbol of hope, freedom and new beginnings, welcoming over 12 million new immigrants, accepting 98% of those who passed through Ellis Island from 1892-1954. During WWI and WWII, she welcomed troops back to the homeland, standing as a reminder of the freedoms they were fighting for while stationed in other parts of the world.  She now stands with the Manhattan skyline at her side, including the new World Trade Center, as a reminder of strength and resilience to rebuild in the name of freedom.

At the end of the tour, the audio guide challenged me (and everyone else who listened to it) to define what liberty means.

I was just about 10 when the Cold War ended, just over 20 when the Twin Towers fell and right around 30 when the Great Recession hit.  Each of these events has shaped my understanding of political, ideological and economic freedoms.  There was much debate among the American people about how much “liberty” could be sacrificed in order to protect “freedom” but little question about what “freedom” meant at the time.  At forty, it seems that the concept of freedom no longer has a consensus understanding among the American people.  What’s more, we have lost our ability to engage in debate, a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.

Immigration is one of the many issues where debate has become nearly impossible.  The last comprehensive reform to our immigration laws was over half a century ago.  The last meaningful attempt at reform was a decade ago. A week ago, without discussion or debate, our government temporarily closed the San Diego port of entry to asylum seekers and is attempting to close off the rest of the border permanently.

The 1980 Refugee Act amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to “revise the procedures for the [S. 643] admission of refugees, to amend the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962 to establish a more uniform basis for the provision of assistance to refugees, and for other purposes.” (Source: Public Law 96-212) Refugee law and humanitarian law recognize that refugees seeking safety cannot always follow an orderly immigration process when death is at their door. Thus, our laws allow for anyone in the U.S. to apply for asylum, regardless of how or where they entered.

Monday, December 10 is Human Rights Day and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person. It confirms that the State has a core duty to promote standards of life that enable us to enjoy equality and freedom, achieve justice, and live in peace.

I cannot think of a simpler concept of freedom than to be able to go to school, run your business, raise your family or live in your home without fearing that you might be killed.  As we turn our backs on these families and children seeking this most basic freedom that the Statue of Liberty symbolized, I cannot help but fear that in the next decade “freedom” in America will may lose its meaning altogether.

By Sarah Brenes, Director Refugee & Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

 

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Using Theatre to Discuss Immigration with Children

FeaturedUsing Theatre to Discuss Immigration with Children

I Come from Arizona — a currently running Children’s Theatre Company production that is creating bridges for discussion.

When I was a child, I grew up on the East side of St. Paul. I lived in an old neighborhood that was home to people of diverse races, economic classes, sexual orientations, and religions. My own father was a refugee from Cambodia, and in 1995, he married a white woman and bought a house in that old neighborhood a year later. Our next-door neighbors were a large Mexican family, and when I was 9, the father was deported and my best friend at the time had to move away. I remember wondering if my father would ever be deported. I was told that it would never happen because he had become an official citizen. As a young child, this was a huge comfort.

That comfort of knowing that your parents are legally allowed in the United States is not something every child shares. I Come from Arizona is a play that seeks to have that conversation with younger audiences and their families/communities. It centers on the experience of a young girl named Gabi who learns that her family is undocumented from Mexico and her interactions with contrasting perspectives on immigration. It was premiered at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis October 9 and runs through November 25. Guest speakers from The Advocates for Human Rights have held post-play discussions to help audiences sift through the often challenging issues raised.
After the show, children from the audience have been invited to send their questions to Off-Book where CTC cast and crew and The Advocates can respond.

Here are some the questions and their answers:

Question: Why is the immigration debate always centered around Mexico and South America?

Madeline Lohman, Senior Researcher: “The immigration debate is centered around Mexico and Latin America for a few reasons. One is historical. Because of our land border with Mexico, it is true that the majority of undocumented immigrants in the past were from Mexico. This led opponents of undocumented immigration to equate it with Mexican immigration or even Mexican identity, when the vast majority of people of Mexican ancestry living in the United States are citizens or legal residents. Today, Mexicans may no longer be the majority of undocumented immigrants according to estimates from the Pew Research Center, which has some of the most reliable numbers on the topic. So, the focus on unauthorized immigration from Mexico is no longer accurate, but it still persists.

A second reason is racial prejudice. Immigrants from Mexico and Latin America are typically people of color and they share a common, non-English language. White, English-speaking citizens can see that they are different in a way that is more difficult with immigrants from Canada or most of Europe. Those white citizens may also have a family heritage from European countries that leads them to feel an affinity for immigrants from Europe that they do not feel for immigrants from Latin America. We can see the influence of racial prejudice in debates about refugee resettlement and granting asylum. When (white) Bosnians were fleeing during the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, there was far less push back than during today’s refugee crises in Syria, Central America, and Somalia.”

Question: Is it true that people have to walk through the desert to cross the border?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “Yes, it’s true. People often walk for many days through the desert to come to the United States.

People come to the United States for many reasons and in many different ways. Many people take airplanes, boats, or drive cars to visit or move to the United States. People who come to the United States need permission, called a “visa,” and need to be inspected and admitted by an officer at the border or airport. The government estimates that 76.9 million people came to the U.S. in 2017, mostly as visitors.

But the United States does not let everyone who wants or needs to come here into the country. People who want to visit, for example, have to prove they have enough money to travel and that they are going to return home when their trip is over in order to get a visa.

Sometimes people risk a dangerous journey to the United States so they can try to enter the country and get work to send money to their families. The United States only allows people to “immigrate” (move here permanently) if a close family member or employer in the United States files a “petition” with the government to let the person come here. But many people who want to come to the United States to build a better future for themselves and their families do not have someone to petition for them. For most, there is no way to legally immigrate. (The United States only allows people who can prove they will invest $1.0 million in a business to immigrate without a petition).

Some people have to leave their homes because they are not safe and come to the United States to seek asylum. People have to be in the United States or at a port-of-entry at the border or airport to ask for asylum — there’s no other process to follow. Asylum seekers from Central America and other countries sometimes make their way to the border on foot. More than 90,000 adults with children were apprehended by U.S. officials near the southern border in 2018.

Here is a good resource for learning more: Enrique’s Journey, a book by Sonia Nazario.”

Question: Why did Gabi’s mom have to lie to her [about their undocumented status]?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “Gabi’s mom was afraid that she would be deported if anyone found out she was in the United States without permission, which we sometimes call being “undocumented.”

People who don’t have permission from the U.S. government to be in the United States can be sent back to their home countries. This is called “deportation.”
Citizens cannot be deported from the United States. Today, everyone who is born in the United States is a U.S. citizen. People born outside the United States can become U.S. citizens through a legal process called “naturalization” where they take an oath of citizenship. U.S. citizens have permission to be here and cannot be deported.

But not everyone in the United States is a citizen. (The law calls anyone who is not a U.S. citizen an “alien”). Many people in the United States have permission to be in the country but are not citizens — they are permanent residents (we sometimes say they have a “green card”), visitors, students, or many other categories. People have to follow special rules and if they break the rules they can be deported. (For example, a person coming to visit the United States is not allowed to work here. If they work, they break the rules and can be deported).

Some people come into the United States without any permission or they stay in the United States after they were supposed to leave. They can be deported if the government finds out they are here without permission.

Here is a good resource for learning more: Documented, a film by Jose Antonio Vargas.”

Question: Do stories like this really happen?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “These stories really happen, and they may be happening to you or kids you know. This can be scary.

The government estimates there are about 11 million people in the United States who do not have permission to be here. About 6 million people under age 18 live with at least 1 undocumented family member.”

Question: Do ICE agents really take people away?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “ICE agents arrest, detain, and deport people from the United States every day.

Since 2008, more than 2 million people have been arrested by ICE and more than 1.2 million people have been ordered deported by immigration judges. ICE reports that 226,119 people were removed from the United States in 2017.

Here is a good resource to learn your rights and make a plan: IMMI: free and simple information for immigrants.”

If you would like to stay up to date with the questions and answers, Off-Book will continue to post updates here.

Or, if you would like to join the conversation and attend I Come From Arizona, resources and tickets can be found here.

By Alyxandra Sego, an intern with The Advocates for Human Rights.

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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.

Our Work: Eradicating Violence Against Women

Our Work: Eradicating Violence Against Women

Kofi Annan said this when he was secretary-general of the United Nations:

Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And, it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.

Think about that: the most pervasive violation of human rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights, through our Women’s Human Rights Program—and indeed through all of our programs—has a proud history of standing up for women and fighting against gender discrimination and violence. We are fighting at every level.

In the immediate term, we help make women safe by bringing their asylum claims to get them away from their abusers and away from the governments that refuse to protect them.

We also help at the level of changing bad laws. In North Africa, we helped bring about the repeal of laws in Morocco and Tunisia that had allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married their victims. We also were instrumental in getting Mongolia to make domestic violence a crime for the first time in its history, and in getting Croatia to recriminalize domestic violence after the government had actually taken it out of the criminal code.

Finally, we know that laws are of little use if they aren’t enforced, so we help at the level of monitoring and education. Here in Minnesota, we educated law enforcement and licensing personnel about sex trafficking, leading to a whole new focus on prosecuting the traffickers rather than the victims of trafficking. Because of this work, more than 20 different Minneapolis businesses that were fronts for sex trafficking were identified and closed.

But we all know how much more must be done. Beating and torture of domestic partners is still too often, in too many places, thought of as a family matter, and governments won’t intervene. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has decriminalized domestic violence just as Croatia did, and is also targeting and successfully shutting down human rights organizations there by claiming they are spies.

Then, of course, there is our own country, which has proclaimed by attorney general fiat that even horrendous domestic violence without government recourse should not be grounds for asylum, arresting and jailing, with “zero tolerance,” adult refugees and their children who present at our borders with a legal claim to asylum—people whose only “crime” was to flee beatings or rape or torture and seek a better life in America.

We have to help all women who suffer violence and abuse, but we cannot do our work without your help. Our budget is tiny compared to the impact we’ve had. That’s because our model is to bring the extraordinary resources of our community, including many of the best and the brightest activists and lawyers, to achieve far more than our small size and budget suggest that we could. The only thing that limits us is having the resources to train, coordinate and support even more of this amazing talent.

Many of us see the horrific things on the news and ask ourselves, “What can I do?” Here are two things you can do right now. First, call your Congressional representative to express your outrage over what our country is doing at the border.

Second, go to www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org and make a financial donation to the Advocates. Now is the time to step up, pull out your checkbook or credit card, give a little more than you thought you would, respond to the call. Speaking personally, I know from direct experience and observation, there is no better place for my family to focus our financial giving than this shining Minnesota beacon of hope called The Advocates for Human Rights.

If you look at the news and ask yourself “What can I do?” that’s what you can do and you can do it now.

By James A. O’Neal, Chair, Board of Directors, the Advocates for Human Rights

This post paraphrases remarks given by Mr. O’Neal at the Human Rights Awards Dinner on June 21, 2018.

The Government is Dragging Us Back Decades in the Protection of Women’s Human Rights

FeaturedThe Government is Dragging Us Back Decades in the Protection of Women’s Human Rights

In my 25 years as a human rights advocate, I have learned that it is very difficult to be female in many parts of the world.  In spite of this reality, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is dragging us back decades in the protection of women’s human rights. His recent rejection of the decision in the Matter of A-B shows a callous disregard for the lived experiences of women.

In many countries, girls are aborted or killed as infants solely because they are female. Some die during traditional rituals such as female genital mutilation. Other girls are married off as children, trafficked for sex, or sold as domestic servants. As adults, women face violence in their homes, the streets, or at the hands of their governments. Some women are prohibited from doing certain kinds of work by archaic labor laws developed based on stereotypes and prejudices about women. Others endure harassment and demeaning work conditions just to make a living.

It took the United Nations more than 45 years to acknowledge women’s rights as human rights and violence against women as a human rights violation. It long ago acknowledged that governments are accountable for the human rights they commit as well as those they systematically fail to prevent. Kofi Annan identified violence against women as the most widespread human rights abuse in the world. Governments around the world have slowly been adopting laws to address violence, but we see enormous difficulties in properly implementing laws to provide adequate protections.

This new recognition that legal protections should reflect the experiences of women was slowly being reflected in refugee and asylum law in the United States. Over the past two decades we have seen the definition of social group, an identified group who should be protected from persecution, extended to victims of domestic violence when their government cannot or will not protect them. These life-saving developments recognized that previous interpretations of the l aw ignored these human rights abuses against women.  Domestic violence is not a family matter, it is a global epidemic and the stakes could not be higher.

Another thing I learned is that governments around the world are failing women. I have heard countless stories over the years about women calling the police or presenting themselves to prosecutors seeking protection from abusive spouses. They are taunted, ignored, and turned away. We have seen some improvement in laws and practices, but they have not stemmed the tide of abuse and women are still being injured and killed at alarming rates.  In some cases, women are ignored because their husbands are police officers, military or high ranking government officials. In other cases, the women are just not believed.

I remember one particularly compelling interview when I first started doing this work. A beautiful young woman in prison in Albania told me about the violence and abuse she experienced at the hands of her husband. He bruised her, broke her bones and made her bleed until she fainted. She tried over and over again to get help from the police and the prosecutors and was routinely turned away and told it was a family matter. After a particularly brutal beating that left her unconscious, she woke to the sight of her husband preparing to sexually assault their daughter. She leapt to her daughter’s defense, attacking her husband. He died as a result of the injuries. She was prosecuted and sentenced to prison for the man’s death. This woman, repeatedly failed by her own government, would not be provided asylum by our government today if Jeff Sessions has his way. It is up to all of us to make sure he doesn’t.

Robin Phillips is the executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights. She is an attorney and has written extensively about human rights, including trafficking in women, employment discrimination, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.

People are breaking U.S. immigration law at the border, but it’s not asylum seekers – it’s the U.S. government.

FeaturedPeople are breaking U.S. immigration law at the border, but it’s not asylum seekers – it’s the U.S. government.

The effects of the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy have been immediate and tragic. Just two months after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy for people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and a month after he made clear this would mean parents arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border would be prosecuted for illegal entry and their children taken away, story after story of separated families have appeared. Mr. Sessions also made clear that this zero-tolerance policy applies even to those seeking asylum.

So it’s no surprise that reports of U.S. border guards refusing to allow asylum seekers to make their claims continue to emerge.

People seeking asylum are following the law, not breaking it.

Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. This is the law – both under international law and federal statute. Recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and spelled out in the 1951 Refugee Convention , the United States made good on its commitment to the this principle in 1980 when the Refugee Act was signed into law.

This right ensures that people fleeing persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group have a chance to make their claim before being returned to death, torture, imprisonment, or other human rights violations.

The moral and human cost of ignoring this fundamental human right is high. Witness the voyage of the St. Louis in 1939, when U.S. immigration law’s restrictive immigration quotas resulted in the return of 532 passengers to continental Europe, 254 of whom died during the Holocaust.

U.S. border officials violate the law when they turn back asylum seekers without a hearing.

In the aftermath of World War II, the world community recognized that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.[1] That principle, known to refugee policy wonks as “non-refoulement,” is now a rule of customary international law.[2]

Refusing to allow people to make their asylum claims, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials reportedly did this week in El Paso, violates U.S. law and violates U.S. treaty obligations. These complaints are not new or isolated: last summer, for example, the American Immigration Council challenged CBP’s unlawful practice of turning away asylum seekers arriving in California. The case remains pending.

The administration’s efforts to prosecute of asylum seekers who appear at ports-of-entry and separate them from their children also violate international law. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani rebuked the U.S. in a June 5 statement:

“The current policy in the United States of separating ‘extremely young children’ from their asylum-seeker or migrant parents along the country’s southern border ‘always constitutes a child rights violation.’” [3]

A federal judge agrees that the administration’s practice may violate the U.S. Constitution. In a ruling earlier this week, the judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the ACLU challenging the practice.

While the administration claims it wants immigrants to “follow the law,” it seems blind to the fact that people who appear at ports-of-entry and claim asylum In addition to The Refugee Convention also prohibits the U.S. from imposing penalties on asylum seekers on account of their illegal entry or presence.[4] In order to deter asylum seekers from coming to the United States.

We need zero tolerance for human rights violations, not for people seeking asylum.

We need zero tolerance for public policy based on hate, racism, and xenophobia. While the administration’s new policies are ripping families apart and denying people their fundamental right to seek asylum, the policies have not slowed the arrival of people seeking protection. More than 50,000 people were arrested crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in May, the third month in a row with more than 50,000 arrests. A report by the Vera Institute of Justice released this week found no evidence that criminal prosecutions led to a decline in apprehensions along the Southwest border.

This is hardly surprising. People fleeing for their lives don’t consult presidential Twitter feeds or check Justice Department press releases. Like good parents everywhere, they go where they hope their children will be able to grow up in safety, protected by the rule of law and the principles of human rights.

[1] 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 33(1).

[2] Customary international law is

[3] While the United States stands alone among the world’s nations as the only country not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, international law is clear that the family is entitled to respect and protection. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, article 16(3), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, article 23(1), and American Convention on Human Rights, 1969, article 17(1) each state that ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State’.  European Social Charter, 1961, article 16, ‘With a view to ensuring the necessary conditions for the full development of the family, which is a fundamental unit of society, the Contracting Parties undertake to promote the economic, legal and social protection of family life ….’ African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, 1981, article 18(1) ‘The family shall be the natural unit and basis of society.  It shall be protected by the State which shall take care of its physical and moral health.’

[4] 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 31 (1).

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What’s it like to be an Advocate for Human Rights? An interview with Courtnie Gore

Courtnie Gore

Courtnie Gore is an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow with The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program. Equal Justice Works is an organization that funds internships and programs for lots of different causes. The focus of Courtnie’s fellowship is immigration.

What are some of the benefits of working as a legal fellow?

The guidance – The learning curve is heavy in any practice. One beautiful thing about a fellowship is that you’re still somewhat of a student while still being a legal professional. You get training and you get to work with others in the community. Not to say you can make careless mistakes, but you can make procedural hiccups, and you can have a coach to guide you through that process.

What are the requirements of your fellowship?

Within my fellowship I have to represent a minimum of 30 children. Right now I have 34, and I think I have one more coming in next week. I started in September 2016. My fellowship is for a year, and it was extended through March 2018. For the fellowship you need 1700 hours of work in the year. The hours aren’t hard to meet if you’re engaged.  The number of clients was at first intimidating.  20 percent of the fellowship can be dedicated to training; 80 percent has to be hands-on work. Within the fellowship, you are afforded the opportunity to attend numerous conferences and training sessions. Immigration is kind of an enigma because one day you walk into the office and federal procedures have completely changed. With the conferences, you get a firsthand playbook of what is soon to come.  Panel members and experts at conferences will say “Here’s what you should work on because I work on the Hill and this bill is in the works..”. I do have the opportunity to reach out to the other Equal Justice Works fellows for networking, but I have so much support here at The Advocates because I don’t really have to reach out much.

Tell us about your job. What are the core component and responsibilities?

I represent unaccompanied minors seeking asylum here in the United States. I represent children who have come here without their parents/guardians.   I represent these children because they have experienced such terrible persecution that they cannot return to their home countries. These children are forgoing the opportunity to see their families, friends, or their countries of origin in applying for asylum.  That is how grave their persecution is. I advocate for them in court and also help them with their asylum applications. I gather corroborating evidence – stories from other family members, country condition reports, documents of identification, to support their stories.  I also assist them with their asylum interview. I get to litigate, practice, and of course use my legal writing and research skills to draft legal briefs and other documentation. I get to be a resource for them outside of their legal needs. These children to the U.S. come without financial and emotional stability. Thank God for the resources of The Advocates. I’ve been able to make referrals for dentists, doctors, therapists, school, ESL classes, and so many other things. I also serve as a resource for pro bono attorneys who take on these cases because most of our pro bono attorneys are not immigration attorneys. They’re just wonderful people who want to do something more. So I’m always in touch with pro bono attorneys. I also help clients who have other claims. Sometimes clients will come in with an asylum claim, but we’ll discover that they also have a U-visa claim, or a T-visa claim.

So I keep my clients informed about their rights, I connect pro bono attorneys, and I also help to conduct trainings and outreach Throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Describe your typical day/ week at work.

I don’t have an answer for that. I come in and fill up my water bottle – that is the most consistent thing about a day at The Advocates. I love not having the same thing to do every day. I will make a schedule for myself, and all of that will be tossed out of the window. There will be a walk-in person and they have a filing deadline next week, or a need that is urgent. I really have to flexible and detailed to make sure that these needs are met.  My typical day, depends on the need.

It’s all a matter of prioritizing. I do like to make sure that whatever a client needs – they have.  However, it’s important to assess your capabilities and your time.  Most of our clients’ needs are urgent and real, so it’s very important to prioritize. Checking in with my supervisor helps me to best allot my time and resources.

What kinds of problems do you face on a day-to-day basis?

There’s just not enough time in the day. I think this is true of any organization that serves a public interest need

What do you like least about working at The Advocates?

That there aren’t enough hours in a day.

What do you like most about working in this field?

The kids. Oh my gosh. I attribute this to my height, but every time I meet with a client, they’re taller than they were at the previous meeting. Just seeing their progression, and how happy they are gives me such joy. They’re great people. All children deserve health and happiness, and they deserve a chance at life.

How old are your clients?

My youngest client is 6. My oldest is 17.

What is it like to work for this particular organization? How would you describe the culture at The Advocates?

I appreciate how much autonomy I have to do my work. No one micromanages you. Supervisors will check in, but you’re given a lot of freedom and chances to mold what ever it is you need to do to provide the best representation to your client.

It’s a welcoming environment. I have never been afraid to ask a question – and that’s not common in the legal field.  Even though I’m a fellow, I feel like I am part of the team. We are all working together for the common good. There is no ego. Working with the Refugee & Immigrant Program has been amazing.

Why did you decide to work in this field and how did you get started? Tell us about your career path that led you to this job.

I always knew I wanted to do something in the legal field. When I was 14, I went with my church, Mt. Gilead Full Gospel International Ministries, to Uganda. At the time there was this huge civil war. I was charged with children’s’ ministry.  So many children had been orphaned because of the war. So I was teaching, providing them with resources, and food. This was my first international trip. And after left I knew I wanted to change the world for the better. I didn’t know in what capacity at that time.  Immigration is the current avenue I’m pursuing in order to change the world for the better.

What experience best prepared you for this job?

Missionary work, without a doubt best prepared me for this position. I will say that one of my mentors, Pastor Julian Dangerfield, took me aside one day when we were in Uganda. I was a teenager who had a bit of an attitude that day because things weren’t necessarily going the way I planned.  He gave me some of the most important advice I’ve ever received: “Go with the flow and take the low road.” That moment for me was vital in my growth, both as a person and as professional. It’s not about you – you are serving people that have a need that is greater than you’ll ever imagine. It is not about being seen as the hero. You have to let go of your ego.

What do you wish you had known starting out in this field? What would you do differently if you were to do it again?

I wish I would have known how new government changes were going to impact the field of immigration, and the impact has been fear. I’ve had clients not show up to court because they think it’s better to have a low profile. We have one client whose mother is eligible for three claims of relief, but she doesn’t feel as though she should pursue them. I wish I would have prepared myself to answer some of those questions and to address those fears. But it’s a good time to be in this position, if you are passionate about the law and serving others.

Tell us about your career path.

My first internship ever was with the Catholic Charities – it was a summer internship and I was helping refugees get bus passes and furniture for their new apartments. This was my first introduction to refugee and immigration work.

In law school I started with a clerkship for the Honorable Margaret M. Marrinan. This experience was incredible. I learned that I wanted to be a litigator and I that wanted to be in court. My second-year summer of law school, I wanted to try international corporate law, so I worked for a firm in Africa. I loved the international work and being in Africa, but I still felt guilty. I was serving a country, but I still didn’t feel like I was helping the most vulnerable populations.

So I ended up coming back and working as a legal consultant with Mano a Mano, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, and then interned for the NAACP.  There was, and still is, a huge issue with police brutality, so I collaborated with the President of the St. Paul chapter for students to know their rights. We created these programs to help them understand the constitution.

After law school I started working in business immigration I loved learning about business immigration, but still needed to do a little more to feel fulfilled.  In that role, I saw this opportunity with the Advocates, and I jumped on it.

Would you recommend a law and/or a graduate in specific areas?

I think a law degree is helpful, but if you don’t have one that doesn’t mean you can’t help.  There are people who assist and advocate for clients in many other ways.  If you have time, resources, or a skill, please get involved because the need is indeed great.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in getting involved?

Just do it.

If you feel like it, jump in and help. You are needed.

Read Courtnie Gore’s reflections and the tips she has learned in her first year of working with clients who are unaccompanied minors in Preparing a Minor for an Asylum Interview: Five Challenges.