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Why Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Wrong

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently unveiled the draft report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (Commission). During the event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (“a place intentionally chosen”, even if it is currently closed to the public), Secretary Pompeo gave a speech entitled “Unalienable Rights and the Securing of Freedom”.   

“And it’s important – it’s important for every American, for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights.  As you’ll see when you get a chance to read this report, the report emphasizes foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty.”   – Secretary Pompeo, July 16, 2020 

https://www.state.gov/unalienable-rights-and-the-securing-of-freedom/

When reading the draft report, it is important to remember that the Commission is a political body created by Secretary Pompeo to perform a very specific, political function: to create an official U.S. State Department document that reflects his own view of human rights, narrowing the definition to undermine fundamental principles of international human rights law and backtrack on U.S. foreign policy objectives that provide protections for historically marginalized groups, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQI community (human rights which Secretary Pompeo has called “ad hoc” rights). 

As an organization committed to implementing international human rights standards, The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about the mandate and work to date of the Commission, as well as the potential harm that the Commission’s report may have on the United States’ fulfillment of its international human rights obligations.  When the Commission was created in July 2019, we joined with other U.S. human rights leaders in sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a  public letter letter expressing concern about the many legal, moral, and philosophical problems with the Commission, its mandate, and its makeup, and calling for the Commission to be immediately disbanded. Our concerns deepened as we observed the work of the Commission over the past year. In April 2020, we submitted comments directly to the Commission as it prepared its “advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters” to Secretary Pompeo, in keeping with its mandate.  

Now that the Commission has released its draft report and recommendations, we are alarmed that the report would narrow the scope of U.S. obligations under international human rights law and justify a ranking of rights that prioritize some rights, such as the right to freedom of religion, over others. We remain strongly concerned that the Commission’s draft report seeks to reinterpret the international human rights framework established over the past 70 years and limit widely recognized international human rights – particularly the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI persons.  We are alarmed that the Commission suggests “other criteria” in its draft report to determine “whether and when a new claim of human right warrants support in U.S. foreign policy”. 

“In short, human rights are now misunderstood by many, manipulated by some, rejected by the world’s worst violators, and subject to ominous new threats.”  – Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights 

https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Draft-Report-of-the-Commission-on-Unalienable-Rights.pdf

The international human rights law framework already adequately defines the scope, content, and obligations of States to respect and promote human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the nine core human rights treaties, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), codify widely recognized and accepted international human rights principles. These treaties are the product of decades of multilateral negotiations and represent an international consensus regarding the scope of human rights that bind the States that have opted into to ratifying them. In ratifying the ICCPR, as well as the treaties such as the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the United States has agreed to be bound by these multilateral human rights treaties.  

As the UDHR and subsequent binding human rights treaties make clear, human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. In other words, all human rights are equal in importance. Although the international human rights framework does recognize a distinction between derogable and non-derogable rights, it does not establish a hierarchy that allows for the exercise of some rights in ways that violate others. A prioritization of one right – freedom of religion or belief – over the enjoyment of other human rights would constitute a violation of the United States’ binding obligations under international human rights law.   

As an organization with United Nations ECOSOC Special Consultative Status, The Advocates regularly participates in international advocacy at the UN human rights mechanisms.  The Advocates also partners with human rights defenders and civil society organizations throughout the world. Many of our partners are currently experiencing threats, including threats of physical harm, due to a backlash against human rights. We are concerned that the Commission’s work sends a signal to the international community that the U.S. government views the international human rights framework as malleable and open to unilateral re-interpretation. The Commission’s willingness to question the basic foundations of the human rights framework risks emboldening populist and authoritarian regimes to further restrict human rights and justify repressive policies. Further, it is in the U.S. government’s national interest to make the promotion and protection of human rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Redefining and restricting human rights would limit the United States’ impact on the protection of human rights around the world. 

We do agree with the Commission’s Concluding Observation that, “A crucial way in which the United States promotes human rights abroad is by serving as an example of a rights-respecting society…” Unlike the work of the Commission thus far, however, a good faith review of the role of human rights in U.S. government policy would necessarily focus on how the U.S. could both improve its human rights record at home and promote greater protections for all human rights worldwide. Such a review would begin by reaffirming the U.S. government’s commitment to the international human rights framework as developed over the past 70 years and would recommend appropriate changes to Trump administration policy based on that framework. Along with others in the U.S. human rights movement, we have expressed our collective desire to refocus this administration on solving some of the human rights violations it has fueled through its reactionary policies on issues ranging from immigration, asylum, freedom of religion, systemic racism, and myriad due process and rule of law issues.  

The Commission was instructed last year to provide Secretary of State Pompeo with “advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  We are better than we were when the UDHR was drafted, shortly after the end of World War II when there were no institutions to challenge the human rights violations perpetrated by State and non-State actors. Human rights are not merely documents. They reflect the core values of our own Constitution and the decades of jurisprudence strengthening anti-discrimination laws that have sought to ensure that these core values can be enjoyed by all. 

By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights  

Take Action!  The release of the draft report on July 16 began a two-week public comment period.  The Commission welcomes all submissions.  Please route them by July 29 to commission@state.gov and/or Designated Federal Officer Duncan Walker, who may be reached at walkerdh3@state.gov

Angela Liu: Celebrating the Work of Our Volunteers

Volunteer attorney for The Advocates For Human Rights, Angela Liu, at the United Nations

Angela Liu, a Chicago-based lawyer at Dechert, is one of the many inspiring volunteers that make the work of The Advocates for Human Rights possible. While Liu is a partner in Dechert’s Trial, Investigations and Securities team, she also has an impressive pro bono practice, devoting hundreds of hours a year to helping those in need. I had the opportunity to speak with Liu earlier this month about her work as a volunteer with The Advocates, which has not only had a tremendous impact on the lives of others but also significantly impacted her own life as well.  

She shared that when volunteering for The Advocates, you might go into a project wanting to help other people, which you do, but you leave the project personally gaining much more than expected. For the past several years, Liu has participated in a number of projects for The Advocates, including a 2015 domestic violence monitoring mission to Montenegro and a 2017 United Nations Study-Advocacy Tour to Geneva.   

Liu participated in The Advocates 2015 domestic violence mission to Montenegro, where she was a part of a team that carried out fact-finding to monitor and document the Montenegrin government’s implementation of domestic violence legislation. While in Montenegro, Liu spent a week interviewing judges, doctors, mediators, police officers, and victims to better understand the current condition of domestic violence in Montenegro, all of which were used to serve as a basis for final report published in 2017. As Liu noted, The Advocates generated a “very detailed report in terms of how many people lacked the education about what domestic violence was.” She then added, “we wanted there to be more training on domestic violence with different NGOs and we wanted amendments to the criminal laws to make sure that the victims were actually protected.” One of Liu’s most memorable moments of the trip was an interview she conducted with a mediator: 

“We were just asking about the mediation process and they told us that ‘domestic violence is a style of communication between the parties and that the victim is choosing to be communicated in that way – through violence.’ And that really just struck me so horribly because he was just explaining it in the most normal way.”

During her travels to Geneva for The Advocates’ United Nations Study-Advocacy Tour, Liu lobbied members of the Human Rights Council regarding the death penalty, domestic violence, religious freedom, and discrimination issues. She also made an oral statement to the Human Rights Council regarding conditions in Eritrea. Reflecting on her time at the United Nations, Liu told me she got “a sense for how fragile things are,” particularly when considering how the system must work to protect the many around the world whose civil and human rights are constantly under threat.  

When I asked Liu what she liked about volunteering with The Advocates, she had endless praise for their work:

“First, I love the people and I love how knowledgeable the attorneys are there. I cannot even imagine the breadth of what they do. I think, for me, I had done a lot of volunteer work prior to law school but I had never had the exposure on the international scale, but … seeing on an international scale how you could effect change was incredible … It is really empowering to do, what I consider to be pretty small things, like an interview, but then see that it can affect change on such a large scale … I don’t know of any other organization where you can really do that.”

She then told me that she feels that she has grown so much as a person through the volunteer work that she has done with The Advocates. She left me with this final thought: 

“Just because you are a big law lawyer doesn’t mean that you can’t do this kind of work. We have the responsibility to do this type of work. Particularly for myself as an Asian American female at a large law firm, I feel a responsibility to help people through the judicial system, and to break different barriers for so many different generations.”  

Thank you, Angela, for all of the work that you do with The Advocates. Your enthusiasm is infectious. You might feel that you have benefitted from being a part of this community, but this community has definitely benefited from you being a part of it.  

By Jenna Schulman, University of Pennsylvania sophomore and active volunteer for The Advocates For Human Rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

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Joan Kuriansky: Celebrating the Work of Our Volunteers

Joan Kuriansky, The Advocates For Human Rights Volunteer Award Recipient

The work done by The Advocates for Human Rights is fueled by its team of talented volunteers. One of these volunteers is Joan Kuriansky, a Washington D.C.­–based lawyer, with a strong commitment to women’s rights work, domestic violence issues, and human rights advocacy. Kuriansky began volunteering with The Advocates in the late 1990s and, ever since, has been a consistent volunteer. I recently had the chance to speak with Kuriansky about her career, including her work with The Advocates.

Moments into the interview, Kuriansky’s passion for human rights advocacy became evident as she excitedly explained to me about some of her past jobs and projects. “It is a lot of fun for me to do this work. I have been involved, especially with the issue of domestic violence, since 1978,” she told me. Kuriansky was the co-founder of a battered women’s program in DC, My Sister’s Place, she ran a legal center in Philadelphia protecting domestic violence victims, and she worked on the passage of the Violence Against Women Act.

Throughout her time volunteering for The Advocates, Kuriansky has worked on a number of different projects. Her first project was in Ukraine providing advocates with domestic violence training. Kuriansky then conducted an in-depth study in Armenia related to domestic violence issues. The report consisted of interviews with attorneys, prosecutors, advocates, and government officials. “And that was my introduction to the work of The Advocates. Already, I was impressed with the way they structured their training, the relationships they were forming, and the breadth of the work,” Kuriansky told me during our interview. Her report was later used to inform future advocacy work of The Advocates in Armenia.

One of Kuriansky’s favorite parts of volunteering with The Advocates is being a part of their annual United Nations Study-Advocacy trip to Geneva. Since 2016, Kuriansky has been an integral member of The Advocates team of volunteers that lobbies at the United Nations. She has co-facilitated panel discussions, delivered a short presentation to the full body of the Human Rights Commission, sat in on country hearings, and met with special rapporteurs and individual delegates from around the world. Kuriansky credits The Advocates for the impact that she has been able to have in Geneva:

“It was because of the extraordinary preparation of The Advocates’ staff that we, as volunteers, could be useful and, I hope, effective. It would not have been possible for us to have had the impact that we did, if we did not have the very well-developed materials and instructions about how to go forward with meeting with these different delegates.”

She noted that many of the team’s recommendations have been incorporated into official comments to various countries under review and some countries have even directly implemented their recommendations:

“In one instance we saw a country increase its funding for domestic violence programs. We also saw that certain laws were changed in keeping with the recommendations. In another instance, moving from law to administration, we saw where a country reorganized its response to domestic violence and the role that the different members of the legal community would play in that regard.”

Currently, Kuriansky is working with The Advocates on various shadow reports, including one on the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on domestic violence. Kuriansky’s shadow report is particularly focused on the D.C. metropolitan area.

When I asked Kuriansky why she chooses to volunteer to with The Advocates, her answer was simple. She told me that she enjoyed the direct application of the work. She praised The Advocates’ advocacy skills:

“One of the great aspects of The Advocates in my mind, is their ability to present information in a way that is compelling, raises hard issue that could otherwise be responded to very defensively by a country but, because of the methodology and on the ground support, the recommendations that come from The Advocates … are taken very seriously and sometimes you don’t find that is the case if a country believes that the outside groups, which are coming in to “criticize” them, are not very respectful of the people in it.”

Kuriansky is a model volunteer – longstanding, enthusiastic, dedicated, passionate, and knowledgeable – and is a role model for many. Just as Kuriansky credits The Advocates with being effective change makers, The Advocates credit her with helping to actualize that change.

By Jenna Schulman, University of Pennsylvania sophomore and active volunteer for The Advocates For Human Rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

Updates – Supporting Victim/Survivors of Domestic Violence during the COVID-19 Pandemic

What’s New? The following article provides updates to our previous blog published March 26, 2020.

On April 30, 2020, Governor Walz issued Executive Order 20-48, which extended the Stay Home Order until May 18. The order is intended to continue to slow the spread of the virus, while allowing some people to return to work. In particular, this order allows retail businesses and non-critical businesses to resume operations with curbside pick-up.

In response to the Governor’s order, The Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea issued another order that extends the limited physical access to courthouses until May 18. Parties are encouraged to use virtual technology, when possible, to conduct hearings and all jury trials are suspended until at least June 1, 2020.

How does the new order affect victim/survivors of domestic violence?

Like previous orders, Minnesotans can leave their homes if they are unsafe, call 911 and/or seek and obtain emergency services. Victim/survivors can also file for a Harassment Restraining Order (HRO) or an Order for Protection (OFP). Judges will issue emergency orders if an imminent risk of physical harm exists.  A hearing may be scheduled if the judge determines that the emergency order creates a public or personal safety concern that must be addressed.

Domestic violence shelters remain open, and domestic violence advocates remain “critical sector workers,” under the Governor’s order. Shelter availability may be more limited due to more social-distancing within shelters. Call 1.866.223.1111 to find a shelter and services in your area.

How do I know if my hearing will be conducted remotely?

If you are a party to a case, the Court will contact you about the scheduling and manner of the hearing. You should contact either district court administration of the assigned judicial officer if you have received information yet.

Hennepin County District Court at (612) 348-6000 Ramsey County District Court at (651) 266-8266 Washington County District Court at (651) 430-6263 Stearns County District Court at (320) 656-3620

If you can wait up to 3 business days for a response, you may send an email. My hearing will be conducted remotely. How should I prepare?

The MN Judicial Branch advises all participants to follow these best practices for remote hearings that are held both with audio and video or else audio (telephone) only:

  • Find a quiet, well-lit place for clear and distraction-free audio and video. Turn off TVs, radios, and phone notifications. If there are others around you, try moving to a room with a door you can close.
  • If joining by video, find your device’s video camera and make sure it is uncovered. Position the camera at eye level so others can see you clearly.
  • If possible, make sure your device is plugged into a power source and not running only off battery power.
  • Dress in solid colors, and be mindful of what is behind you.
  • Use headphones, if possible, for the best sound quality and the fewest background noises.
  • Mute yourself when not speaking.
  • Identify yourself each time you speak.  The court reporter may not be able to identify individual speakers without identification.
  • Speak one at a time and pause before speaking in case there is audio or video lag.  Do not interrupt.  The court reporter can only take down one voice at a time.
  • Enter your first and last name when you join. If you are an attorney, identify which party you represent. For example, Joan Lawyer, Attorney for the Petitioner.

For more information, visit the MN Judicial Branch’s webpage on remote hearings.

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This is No Ordinary Mother’s Day

Sarah Brenes with her mother, a nurse, on “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”

This is my first Mother’s Day without my mama. I am reminded of her every day, as I follow the news about healthcare professionals on the frontline of caring for the sick and neighbors making masks. My mom was a nurse and knew how to sew—both skills have proven essential during this current pandemic. I went into law, not healthcare, and can barely sew a button. Like many working mothers, I try to have patience with myself during these unusual times, as it feels as if the Coronavirus took the seesaw that is work/life balance and threw it up into a windstorm. I keep reminding myself that so long as we are safe and healthy at home, I just need to hold on tight and ride out the storm. For many of the mothers we serve as part of our work at The Advocates for Human Rights serving asylum seekers, the storm of upheaval is much greater before things return to normal. This Mother’s Day, I pause to acknowledge the extraordinary resilience that many of our clients are required to demonstrate in order to return to, or perhaps begin, the ordinary task of motherhood.

I recall my first asylum interview with a client when I returned to work after giving birth to my daughter, Cecilia.

Sarah’s daughter, Cecilia, dancing in a dress sewn by her mother and grandmother

The client was a prominent journalist in her home country. She had an accomplished career covering all topics, including politics. Her work covering corrupt practices heading up to the country’s presidential elections eventually resulted in her being targeted and raped by government officials for reporting on its corrupt acts. She learned she was pregnant after arriving in the U.S. — her son just a few months older than my daughter.  

I was raised in a white middle-class family in the 1980’s. My mom was a daughter of the 50’s. As a high schooler, the only extracurricular my mom could participate in was cheerleading. Less than 10% of women had college degrees by the time she started nursing school. I was raised with new doors opened under Title IX and my mom was committed to enrolling me in every sport, musical activity and academic extracurricular that she could. I went on to graduate college and earn my law degree, when women were approaching 50% of law graduates (there is still a long way to go on equality in the profession, but that is for another blog). I managed to start a family while in law school and was in step with many of my peers, nimbly managing work and home life. My life experience could not be more different from my client’s, yet we were connected by our womanhood, our motherhood and our desire to pursue a meaningful career.

I remember preparing the client for her interview.  Having the privilege of not knowing what it was like to be violated by government officials, I did not know how she managed to carry the weight of that horror alongside her unborn child, or welcome this new innocent life into the world, having come from one of the darkest places of humanity.

In unlawyer-like fashion, I broke down during my closing statement. The pain and suffering this client endured for her allegedly political acts as a journalist were undeniable. It was a slam dunk, as far as the legal case was concerned. Yet I could not hold back tears as I pleaded that the officer grant her case swiftly, “so that she can know that she is safe here and can just focus on being a mom.”

In 2019, we saw an unprecedented number of pregnant women come to The Advocates for help. Some fled in order to protect their unborn daughters from female genital mutilation (FGM). Others were pregnant from rape, by a partner, a government official or a gang member who ordered her to visit him for conjugal visits. Other mothers fled alone, leaving children behind, to be reared by family or friends, or whom they would struggle to remain connected with, mothering from afar.  

International Human Rights Law as it relates to refugees is premised on the simple goal of protecting families and individuals who face life-threatening harm to the point it is no longer safe to remain in their home country. Over the years, the U.S. has complicated the rules to limit those protections and access to the process to seek it.

We have jailed mothers with their children, separated moms from their babies, added to the checklist of en route requirements before seeking protection in the United States and most recently moved and then closed the door where mothers can ask lady liberty for protection for themselves and their families. We have turned on mother’s who are beaten and limited the definition of “family” in pursuit of limiting who can find safety in the U.S. when there was none at home.

All of this has made extraordinary the work of ordinary attorneys who volunteer with us to help the over 600 asylum seekers we provide free legal services to each year.  

Things are not quite normal for anyone these days, but this Mother’s Day I am safe at home…with my family. For most clients, this most simple wish is what they hope to come true when they come in to seek our help. To be safe; to have a place to call home; to be with your family–these most basic human rights are what drive us to keep coming to work, even if we have to stay home.   

Masks sewn by Sarah’s neighbors, made from Sarah’s mom’s quilt fabrics

If you are an ordinary attorney who wants to do extraordinary work, join our volunteer team.  If you speak another language, join our volunteer interpreter network.  If you want to help us make mother’s day an ordinary celebration for our clients, donate to support our work.

By Sarah Brenes, Director of the Refugee & Immigration Program at The Advocates For Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

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Remote Volunteers Help NGOs Engage with the United Nations

Civil society organizations play a crucial role in human rights monitoring at the United Nations. The mission of the United Nations – to monitor, protect, and advance human rights around the world – is best carried out when civil society actively participates. Non-governmental organizations, activists, and academics provide valuable information about human rights violations that governments miss or cover up. For instance, they can submit written information in the form of a “shadow” or “alternative” report. These reports give activists an opportunity to share local human rights violations directly with the international community and, ultimately, to change laws and policies.

While the United Nations welcomes civil society participation, the opportunities and deadlines for participation are not so easy to track down. Each mechanism has a different system, which is why we need volunteers to become experts on each one and compile the information into one easy-to-use database.

Flag of the United Nations

Thanks to a team of nine paralegal volunteers and twelve other remote volunteers, The Advocates facilitates civil society engagement with United Nations and Regional Human Rights mechanisms through an online deadline database. The database is searchable by country and provides up-to-date, accurate information about reporting opportunities all in one place. Without this team of volunteers, non-governmental organizations may be left in the dark about opportunities to engage with the United Nations.

As someone who personally works with our volunteers on a regular basis, I can attest to their enthusiasm and discipline. I am always impressed with how eager they are to know all the ins and outs of the United Nations monitoring process, even though they don’t need to know all the specifics for this work. It is a steep learning curve, yet they are always up to the challenge. I also appreciate how responsive they are to my many emails about updating the database when unexpected changes arise.

The global pandemic has not stopped them from continuing their work, even when many of their own workloads have increased. One volunteer recently told me she was going to check on the deadlines weekly as opposed to bi-weekly, just so she could make sure she caught all the updates due to COVID-19. Many other volunteers worked to quickly turn around new deadlines that changed due to COVID-19 so that our international partners at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty could stay up to date.

When I asked our volunteers why they took on this work, here is how they responded. I hope you can see for yourself that something as simple as a database can have a big impact.

“The Advocates for Human Rights does important work and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to contribute my time to such a cause.” – Paralegal Volunteer

“I have been overwhelmed by the changes in policy toward immigrants and anyone in the world really who needs help. The first work I did for Advocates was on an asylum case. Even though we were not successful, the appreciation shown to me, by the wife and children of the man who was eventually deported, made me realize that I needed desperately to fill a hole in my life. When our pro bono director reached out to me on entering deadlines for treaty bodies, I jumped at the opportunity.  There are still many things out there that make me sad, but doing this work, as minimal as it is, helps fill the “hole”.” – Paralegal Volunteer

“I took it on because it sounded terribly interesting and I wanted to contribute (albeit in a VERY small way) to making the world (not just my little suburban corner of it) a better place. I like to think that it enables someone (individuals or groups) to make a case to protect and improve the lives of those who cannot (or are not able) to do so themselves.” – Paralegal Volunteer

“Something that has always been important to me, is to ensure I put aside time to give back to the community, and beyond. Advocating for human rights is so crucial to promote equality within the community, society and all over the world. For me, volunteering my time to The Advocates of Human Rights, and having any part in facilitating their mission, is a real honor.” – Paralegal Volunteer

By Elizabeth Lacy, Program Assistant for Women’s Human Rights and International Justice Programs at The Advocates For Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.