Sometimes the Stars Align

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????After two years as an observer in immigration court, it is almost possible to get desensitized to the constant inhumanity of our deportation machinery. Every new executive order that limits the numbers of refugees, allows humans to be caged, deports people without access to a hearing, abolishes long standing grounds for asylum, and sends people back to countries where they face certain death, makes me despair that change will ever come.

As court observers with the Human Rights Defender Project, we observe hearings in immigration court as moral witnesses. We aim to bring transparency and accountability to hearings that have historically taken place out of the public view.  We observe and document to shed light, to motivate ourselves through our informed moral outrage, and ultimately, we aim to help create an immigration system that upholds the dignity of all people and that is built on international principles of human rights.  At times, through the relentless march of five-minute hearings, it can all seem futile.

But sometimes the stars align and the impact is measurable.

Last week I observed a hearing where a person gave up his asylum claim and asked to be deported. Yesterday I posted his bond and he is back living with his good friend and working on his asylum case.

It was the man’s second hearing. He had been given time to find an attorney but explained to the judge that he simply couldn’t afford one.  He asked to be deported, stating that he found prolonged detention at the Sherburne County Jail, the largest ICE detention facility in Minnesota, to be intolerable.

“I don’t like how I am treated there. I can’t stay there any longer.”

The judge, noting the man’s previous statement on record, asked if he feared for his life if he returned to his country of birth. “Yes,” he replied, speaking through the interpreter.  The judge encouraged him to fight for asylum and suggested he request, in writing, a bond hearing. He repeated his hopelessness and his lack of funds. But a friend in the courtroom for the hearing stood and said he would try to help with paperwork to try to support a motion for bond and for asylum.  Both of these things are daunting to do from detention, where communication is costly and onerous, where everything needs to be translated with the help of fellow detainees if one doesn’t have English fluency, and where it is nearly impossible to get ahold of evidence needed to support the case.

The Court Observer Project has a process for referring unique cases for pro bono representation, but there are limited resources to take the cases. The need is vast, the timelines are short, and the available attorneys are stretched thin. I had no idea of the merits of his potential asylum claim, but I felt he had a strong case for bond. He has lived in the United States for nearly twenty years, has a support system, and had no criminal history whatsoever.

I referred the case to the Pro Bono Bond Project, a small but vital part of the collaboration between The Advocates for Human Rights, the Binger Center for New Americans, and Robins Kaplan. A week later, with pro bono counsel from Robins Kaplan at his side, the man appeared for his bond hearing. After hearing his case, the immigration judge set a reasonable bond. His volunteer attorney then made a referral to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit with a rotating fund for criminal and immigration bonds. They have very limited capacity, but almost immediately, Minnesota Freedom Fund responded that it could pay the bond for this case. I’m a volunteer with MFF, so I jumped at the chance to go to the ICE office myself to post the bond.

As I left the Whipple Building that beautiful sunny day, I knew that in this instance someone was gaining a measure of freedom and was having a bit of dignity restored.  After watching countless cases of replete with sorrow and injustice, I took comfort in knowing that sometimes we can make a difference.

By Amy Lange, the Immigration Court Observer Project Coordinator at The Advocates for Human Rights.

Understanding the Expansion of Expedited Removal

statue 2 web largeThe long-expected announcement of the expansion of expedited removal authority throughout the United States, just a week after the administration rewrote the rules on establishing a credible fear of persecution or torture, is like a 1-2 punch for due process and the right to seek asylum.

Expedited removal, a product of the 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, gives low-level immigration officials the power of judge, jury, and executioner of deportation orders. This is particularly disturbing given the record of misconduct and lack of accountability that permeates federal immigration enforcement. Expedited removal authorizes immigration officers to summarily arrest, detain, and deport people believed to be in violation of two provisions of immigration laws. The American Immigration Council has a good primer on expedited removal here.

These provisions – INA 212(a)(6)(C) and (a)(7) – render people “inadmissible” to the United States based on misrepresentation or failure to have required documents for entry.

No actual proof of these violations is needed. There’s no appeal. The penalty: a five-year bar to returning to the United States on a visa.

These provisions are slippery creatures. Here’s how these laws work in practice.

A political dissident escapes their country after spending weeks in jail for attending a political rally. They have a visitor visa to the United States, granted to them so they can travel to this country for a conference of democracy activists, so they buy a plane ticket and head for safety. When they finally arrive at the U.S. airport, exhausted from a long flight and worn out after weeks of imprisonment and torture, they present their lawfully obtained visa to the immigration official. But, when they tell the officer that they want asylum, they invalidate their visitor visa because they say they want asylum, not just to visit. They have violated INA 212(a)(6)(C). Immigration officials arrest, detain, and interrogate them. They sit for hours without food or access to a phone. An immigration agent with little training on the political situation unfolding in this far-flung nation has the power to return them on the spot. No judge. No lawyer. No hearing.

Years ago, one of our volunteer attorneys called for help finding out what had happened to friend’s mother. The elderly grandmother had come to the U.S. for her annual visit. Her flight arrived, but she never came out of immigration control. Days later the woman made contact with her frantic children. She had been deported under the expedited removal laws. Apparently immigration officials saw other travelers with a similar last name on the flight who did not have visas. They accused her of being in cahoots with them. Eventually, after spending the night in an interrogation room at the airport, she was sent home with an expedited removal order. Five years of missed school plays and family celebrations were the result.

For years this extraordinary authority was limited to people arriving at airports and sea ports. Then the power expanded to people found within 100 miles of a U.S. border who couldn’t prove they had been in the country at least 14 days. (For my Minnesota friends, that meant that a visit to the North Shore could result in being pulled over, questioned by Border Patrol, and followed to your campsite – at least if you don’t “look Minnesotan” – as we documented in our 2014 report on immigration in Minnesota).

Now the Department of Homeland Security has expanded this sweeping power with plans to apply it to anyone, anywhere in the United States who cannot prove they have been here at least two years. Having lawful immigration status – or even being a U.S. citizen – is no guarantee that you won’t be questioned about your status or your documents. According to an NPR report, hundreds of U.S. citizens each year face detention and deportation. (And, let’s not forget, the United States has engaged in mass deportation of U.S. citizens to Mexico during the Depression, when “up to 1.8 million people of Mexican descent – most of them American-born – were rounded up in informal raids and deported in an effort to reserve jobs for white people.”)

The law treats people at the border differently. And bit by bit the “border” has expanded so that race-based traffic stops, document checks on trains and buses travelling in the northern part of the country, and roadblock checkpoints throughout the southwest all have become routine.

But the immigration law cannot override foundational constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, disappearance, and torture.

So what should people do?

#1 Know your rights. Throughout the past weeks, as threatened ICE raids put communities on high alert, we saw examples of how making ICE play by the rules works to protect people. If you want a good overview of the constitutional limits on search and seizure, check out ICE’s own training on the Fourth Amendment. (Thanks Mijente and Detention Watch Network for forcing ICE to turn over it’s 2017 Operation Mega documents).

You have the right to remain silent. Immigration officials like to rely on people’s admissions of unlawful presence.

You have the right to refuse to let ICE into your home unless they have a warrant signed by a judge. ICE likes to show up with administrative warrants of arrest or removal, which are not enough to authorize them to enter your home.

Remember that even the draconian expedited removal procedures have a review process. People who fear persecution or torture have a right to a review of their claim. People who claim U.S. citizenship, lawful permanent residence, or refugee or asylum status have a right to a “claimed status review” before being deported under expedited removal laws.

#2 Plan ahead. You don’t have to carry a giant folder of documents with you, but gathering your important papers together and storing them in a safe place where a trusted person can access them is a smart move. Help people who may have trouble explaining or even knowing their status know what to do if ICE asks them questions.

#3 Sue. Seriously. Immigrant rights organizations around the country are planning litigation, but individuals whose rights are violated need to step forward. Violations need to be documented and accountability demanded.

#4 Speak out. The expansion of expedited removal was announced in the Federal Register on July 23, 2019. Public comments will be taken for 90 days. You may submit comments, identified by Docket Number DHS-2019-0036 using the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at https://www.regulations.gov.

Call your congressional representatives at 202-224-3121 and ask them to restore due process by repealing the expedited removal laws.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights

New Asylum Bar Takes Effect

Statue of Liberty_erik-lindgren-unsplashA new regulation by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice seeks to bar asylum to people who enter or attempt to enter the United States at the southern border if they do not first apply for asylum in at least one other country through which they traveled.  The Interim Final Rule published July 16 took immediate effect and allows only 30 days for public comment.

The new asylum bar is the latest in a series of actions designed to limit access to protection for refugees. The federal government has engineered a crisis at the southern border by starving the system of adjudicatory resources while exponentially expanding the capacity to detain people arriving in search of protection from persecution or torture. The government has used this engineered crisis to change unilaterally and without debate asylum eligibility rules.

The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about this restriction on the fundamental human right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. We are reviewing the regulation and monitoring its impact on our clients. Volunteer attorneys should watch for practice guidance and should reach out to The Advocates’ staff or consulting attorneys with questions.

What does the new rule do?

The new rule establishes a new mandatory bar to asylum for people who enter or attempt to enter the United States across the southern border if they did not apply for protection from persecution or torture in at least one third country through which they transited on their way to the United States.

Who does the rule apply to?

The new rule applies to anyone who enters or attempts to enter the United States at the southern border on or after Tuesday, July 16, 2019. This rule does not affect people who entered before July 16, 2019, or who enter or attempt to enter at other ports of entry.

Are there exceptions to the new rule?

There is a very limited exception for people who demonstrate that they are a victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons.

How can I help?

Speak out.

Comments to this rule, identified by EOIR Docket No. 19-0504, may be submitted via the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov.

Call your congressional representatives at 202-224-3121 to ask them to protect the right to seek and enjoy asylum.

Volunteer.

We urgently need attorneys to represent asylum seekers. No immigration law experience is needed. You will get the training and support you need. Click here to get started.

Interpreters and translators make representation possible. Click here to help.

Human rights monitors are needed to observe immigration court hearings. Click here to learn more.

Donate.

The Advocates for Human Rights provides free legal help to more than 1000 victims of human rights abuses, including asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and people in detention. We need your help now more than ever. Please click here to give.

Briefing the UN Human Rights Council on Burundi

A growing number of victims fleeing politically-based violence in Burundi have requested legal assistance from The Advocates for Human Rights in applying for asylum in the United States. The Advocates for Human Rights recently brought the experience of our clients and concerns about violations of civil and political rights in Burundi to the United Nations Human Rights Council.  The Advocates for Human Rights’ volunteer attorney Carrie Brasser delivered the following oral statement in March 2019 during an Interactive Dialogue with the UN Commission of Inquiry for Burundi.

The Advocates for Human Rights welcomes the oral briefing of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

Since April 2015, the human rights crisis in Burundi has escalated in both its extent and brutality. The ruling party’s repression of suspected opponents, civil society, and the media has involved enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, torture and rape. State actors, including members of the police force and the Imbonerakure youth league, have acted with impunity against their victims. The indiscriminate shooting of demonstrators, targeting of journalists and activists, and aggressive reprisals against witnesses are among the many abuses suffered by citizens. These conditions have caused over 250,000 to flee this state-sponsored oppression and violence.

As a provider of legal services to asylum seekers, The Advocates for Human Rights has represented victims of violence from Burundi and documented first-hand accounts of:

  • Illegal invasions and searches of homes and businesses, including firing on civilians, looting of property, and the rape of a witness
  • The arbitrary arrest of an anti-corruption activist based on false charges, culminating in her assault and rape, and
  • The targeting of supporters of constitutional election law, as well as journalists, involving arbitrary arrests followed by brutal torture for extended periods

We commend the Commission of Inquiry for making concerted efforts to engage in monitoring and fact-finding among people who have been forced to flee the country.

These and other accounts of human rights abuses support our recommendations that the Human Rights Council:

  • Continue the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Burundi and retain the situation in Burundi on its agenda under item 4
  • Request that the Security Council impose sanctions against individuals responsible for both gross systemic human rights violations as well as the obstruction of UN mechanisms to document violations and
  • Encourage effective justice mechanisms to ensure that individuals responsible for these abuses are held accountable.

Thank you.

In 2017, The Advocates also submitted a stakeholder submission for Burundi’s Universal Periodic Review, which included direct information about human rights violations from survivors who have fled Burundi to seek asylum in the United States.  Read the full submission here.

Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration

Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. The Advocates for Human Rights is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum and trafficking cases and documenting their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes. 

In February 2019, Board member Peggy Grieve shared the experiences of our asylum clients with and made recommendations to the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.  Peggy delivered the following oral intervention during the Committee’s Half-day General Discussion on Trafficking in Women and Girls in the Context of Global Migration.

Dear Members of the Committee:

From The Advocates for Human Rights’ direct legal representation of Northern Triangle clients, we have determined:

(1) children, even when traveling in the company of migrating adults, are vulnerable to sex trafficking; and

(2) after arrival in the U.S., adults and children are at risk of labor trafficking.

Two examples. One client entered the U.S. as a 15-year-old girl with her father. A family friend coerced her into leaving home. They traveled to live several states away where this friend groomed her to be sex-trafficked.

A client entered the U.S. without inspection with her boyfriend. He brought her to live with his family.  Before long, he demanded that she repay him $10,000 he had paid smugglers for entry. He sexually assaulted her. She was forced into a low-paid, illegal job to cover her “debt.”

No one is going to believe you. You don’t have a voice. Here you are nobody,” she was told.

To help women and girls, victims of trafficking, survive, heal, and ultimately integrate into society and live a life free of further exploitation, a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach that provides survivors with immigration and other legal protections and adequate support services is critical.  The criminal justice approach focused on punishing traffickers, by itself, is insufficient to address the human rights of sex and labor trafficked survivors.

On behalf of our clients, the Advocates for Human Rights thanks the Committee for this important initiative.

The Advocates for Human Rights encourages the Committee to consider the experience of our women and girl clients, as well as the recommendation for a victim-centered approach to identify and respond to meet the needs of trafficked women and girls in the context of global migration.

Freedom

…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