A Volunteer Reflects

Sydney Goggins, University of Minnesota Law Student and WATCH volunteer

Going into a courtroom for the first time compared to re-entering a courtroom after a semester of law school are wildly different experiences. My first time in the courtroom was with WATCH, a court monitoring and judicial policy initiative of The Advocates For Human Rights, when I was 18. I was overwhelmed, excited, and confused but eager to learn. The cases moved so fast and it felt like the lawyers and judges were speaking in a foreign language. The lawyers’ clients, if present, seemed just as confused as me. It was not how I had imagined court at all. Similar to many Americans who have never been in courtroom, I was picturing a scene similar to television, a lawyer screaming “this court is out of order!” at the judge after a passionate argument. However, the reality within a courtroom is a more procedural process. Lawyers coming in and out stating what they needed from the judge and leaving, the judge rapidly shuffling through papers, and the occasional defendant coming out in handcuffs. I left the courthouse that day inspired and excited to understand the inner workings of the process. I wanted to be a part of it all. 

Fast forward to when I was 21 years old, re-entering a courtroom for the first time after a semester of law school. Things made sense and the process felt familiar and easy. While the lawyers’ arguments were not the passionate, powerful arguments you see on television, I could understand how and why they were making arguments for their clients. I found excitement in the little things that I hadn’t seen or noticed before. Filing motions, writing briefs, and dealing with the procedural issues is necessary work in order to win a case. In law school, especially during your first year, there is a disconnect between what we are learning and how it is applied in practice. WATCH has provided me confidence in a courtroom and in front of a judge that many other students may not yet have. Volunteering for WATCH allows me to bridge the gap between my legal education in the classroom and how this information I am learning is put into practice in the courtroom. 

By Sydney Goggins, University of Minnesota law student and WATCH volunteer

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. 

 

Supreme Court’s Ramos Decision Brings Attention to the Relevance of International Human Rights Standards in Death Penalty Cases

U.S. Supreme Court (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down provisions in Oregon and Louisiana law that allow a jury to convict someone of a crime without reaching a unanimous verdict. Ramos v. Louisiana brings attention to the importance of aligning death penalty practices in the United States with international human rights standards. The Advocates for Human Rights, as a member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. But as a step toward abolition, it is important to examine the human rights standards that apply when a state allows the death penalty. 

At first glance, Ramos might seem entirely irrelevant to international human rights law or the death penalty. The provisions in Oregon and Louisiana law that the Court struck down both had exceptions: for a defendant to be sentenced to death, the jury must decide the person’s guilt unanimously.  

Moreover, the Court’s decision in Ramos is based on the Sixth Amendment right to a “trial by an impartial jury.” Trial by jury is just one of several ways to determine whether a person accused of a crime is guilty, and international human rights standards do not dictate that courts must use a jury to determine a person’s guilt. Article 14(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, calls for “a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” Some countries ensure this right with a jury as finder of fact, while others task a judge to make factual determinations, and still others use a hybrid system with a professional judge alongside lay judges or jurors finding facts together. 

But the unanimity exceptions for capital cases in Oregon and Louisiana law bring to mind the importance of international human rights standards that apply to the death penalty. 

Non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases violate the United Nations’ minimum safeguards applicable in death penalty cases. These safeguards, adopted in 1984, say that a person may be sentenced to death “only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts.” If twelve jurors hear all the evidence in a case and, even after prolonged deliberations, one or two of those jurors do not think the defendant is guilty, then there must be a persuasive “alternative explanation of the facts.”  

These safeguards are consistent with one of the most persuasive arguments against the death penalty—the risk of wrongful convictions. Exonerees from organizations like Witness to Innocence provide powerful testimonies that the criminal justice system can reach unjust results. Requiring a unanimous jury doesn’t ensure that the jury will reach a correct decision. Indeed, the 167 people who have been exonerated from death row since 1972 were likely all found guilty by unanimous juries. But the 1984 safeguards emphasize that when a person’s life is on the line, the justice system must ensure that the legal process “gives all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial.” 

Last year, the U.N. Human Rights Committee published a general comment relevant to the death penalty. (The Advocates made two written submissions to the Committee as it drafted the comment.) The Committee noted that violation of the fair trial rights in Article 14 of the ICCPR can render a death sentence arbitrary, in violation of Article 6 of the ICCPR. The Committee called on State Parties to the ICCPR to “take all feasible measures in order to avoid wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, to review procedural barriers to reconsideration of convictions and to re-examine past convictions on the basis of new evidence.” 

A unanimous jury requirement is just one component of the government’s obligation to avoid wrongful convictions. Another important component is access to competent legal representation. You’ll read more about that topic on this blog later this year. The theme for the 2020 World Day Against the Death Penalty—an event marked every year on October 10—is Access to Counsel: A Matter of Life or Death.  

Click here to learn more about The Advocates work against the death penalty worldwide. 

By Amy Bergquist, Senior Staff Attorney in The Advocates’ International Justice Program. She represents The Advocates on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, where she is one of the Coalition’s vice presidents. 

Volunteers Fight The Fight; Families Reunite

A client of The Advocates For Human Rights reunited with her children after 7 years.

During this time of coronavirus, we are bombarded with news of things going wrong, with too many stories of loved ones passing away alone, retirement savings lost, and doctors feeling overwhelmed without the resources they need.

As immigration lawyers, we have a front row seat to the assaults on the rights of marginalized people when society is dealt a blow. Every day we field calls from detained immigrants whose health conditions make them extremely vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. We’re learning of large employers endangering their immigrant workers by forcing them to stay on the job even when numbers of ill coworkers climb into the hundreds., Anxious clients and volunteers are asking what will happen to them now that Trump says he’s going to “end immigration”.

This pandemic has unquestionably had an impact on us all. A recent column in The New York Times highlighted a Kaiser Family Foundation poll which found that nearly half of all Americans — 45 percent — feel that the coronavirus has negatively affected their mental health.

I would be lying if I said I have not often felt dispirited by the news and the challenges facing the communities we serve. However, I have a daily dose of motivation to keep me running full speed ahead: the amazing volunteer attorneys, interpreters, and paralegals, who continue to fight tirelessly for our clients’ rights and safety. Our volunteers live and work nationwide, and their practices range from large firm to solo. They handle every type of case, from filing asylum applications with USCIS to fighting for bonds for detained immigrants.

These are not people with endless time on their hands. I often hear kids playing in the background on calls with volunteers. Yesterday I got a call from a volunteer right after her work day wrapped up. She informed me she had seven minutes to ask her questions because that was how long her child was allowed to play on his iPad. We had a very efficient seven-minute call. Almost daily, I receive late-night emails from busy attorneys ensuring their pro bono clients receive timely responses to their questions. These attorneys do not come to this advocacy work feeling they know everything (or anything) about asylum law; most do not have immigration law backgrounds. They learn “on the job,” supported by The Advocates’ training and mentorship. They ask questions, they research, and they do excellent work representing their clients.

Legal representation matters, but immigrants facing deportation in Minnesota have a less than 50 percent chance of getting counsel. We know that 98.5 percent of families appearing without a lawyer were ordered deported. In contrast, when an attorney represented these families, the immigration judge allowed almost a quarter to stay in the country. The Advocates’ attorneys have won close to 70 percent of their cases. It is only because these dedicated people do the daily, often unglamorous, and nearly always difficult work of ensuring access to justice that many individuals, families, and children have a chance to rebuild their lives after fleeing with nothing.

It is clear that this advocacy work is essential to the safety of asylum seekers. But does it help volunteers too? The author of The New York Times column cited not only the findings by the Kaiser Family Foundation; she also reminded us that those who find ways to make meaning and create hope are most able to experience resilience in times of crisis like this one.

I know from experience that it not easy to fight for justice as the pandemic rages. I was curious how our volunteers are staying motivated, so I asked them to tell us why they’re volunteering. I hope you see in these reflections the kind of world you want to see.

“I volunteer for The Advocates to honor the humanity of others.” – small firm attorney

“Every day we represent our asylum clients we help them take another step toward freedom and reunification with their families. One of the primary reasons I went to law school was to continue being a ‘Man for Others,’ a phrase instilled in me at my Jesuit high school. Working with The Advocates and wonderful clients carries on that tradition and hopefully inspires others to join our team.” – mid-sized firm attorney

“The reason I volunteered was to have an opportunity to help our immigrant friends get out of ICE detention – which I believe is a serious human rights abuse against our fellow human beings.  I have been so blessed in my life by the love I have been given by family and friends that I believe it is imperative for me to share this love with others and help them find a more peaceful and meaningful life.” – retired attorney

“There is such a huge need for legal representation by asylum seekers living in Greater Minnesota, and The Advocates for Human Rights is uniquely positioned to provide state-wide assistance. I firmly believe that no matter where an individual came from or where in the U.S. they live now, everyone is entitled a supportive advocate network to help them find a more uplifting path.” – solo attorney  

“Given the unprecedented times we are living in, and the state of crisis, it was so rewarding to find out that USCIS has just granted our pro bono client’s application for Special Immigration Juvenile Status!” –large firm attorney

“There is nothing like getting an asylum win!” – small firm attorney

 “A few years ago I was looking to volunteer in a way that would make a significant difference in individual people’s lives. I have always worked in public policy and never represented clients. I wanted that experience, that relationship with a client in a deeply meaningful way. I attended an Advocates training and left with a domestic violence case three years ago. Working with traumatized women can be troubling and saddening, however it is also gratifying and meaningful. My asylum work gives me perspective in my own life. My life has been enriched by learning of my clients’ lives and advocating for them. In early March of this year, my first client’s children came to the U.S. to live with her. There is no experience quite like being at an airport when a mother is reunited with her young children after years long separation! And it fuels me to keep on volunteering and trying to make a positive impact on other people’s lives.” – public policy attorney

“I have been increasingly distressed by the xenophobia and the racism that has surrounded the immigration discussion, and I decided then and there to volunteer [when our advocacy director Michele Garnett McKenzie asked for volunteers at a community event]. I’ve thought about it for years, but was hesitant because my legal practice was in tax and estate planning (I’m now retired). This has been an amazing opportunity to live out my values. I feel grateful for the support I’ve received from seasoned attorneys at The Advocates as I have worked on my very first asylum case.” – retired attorney

And, lastly, a wonderful call to action from one of our brilliant immigration attorney mentors:

“I continue to volunteer because I know that now, more than ever, one hour of my time can potentially change someone’s life. I’ve seen the quote, “strong alone, unstoppable together”, and that’s how I feel when I volunteer alongside other incredible attorneys.” – small firm attorney  

Our volunteers remind me that through the many challenges we face with this administration, and especially during this pandemic, we are still winning many of the fights. Perhaps most importantly, their stories remind me that the kind of world I want to see, a world where the justice one gets doesn’t depend on the girth of one’s wallet, is being built day by day, case by case, fight by fight, right here and right now, by asylum seekers and their advocates. Want to join this inspiring community? Visit our website or email Alison at agriffith@advrights.org.


By Alison Griffith, Staff Attorney for the Refugee and 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. 

A Global Look at COVID-19 and Domestic Violence

covid-19
Photo credit: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

The Advocates is taking action to respond to increased domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit our social media about the impact of COVID-19 on domestic violence in countries around the world. 

Across the world, agencies are seeing an uptick in domestic violence cases as stay-at-home and limited movement orders have been put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some countries report a decrease in domestic violence calls to hotlines, advocates warn that this is more than likely due to victims/survivors being unable to safely make a phone call while living with their abuser. In response, hotlines around the world have implemented text and email hotline services that help victims be more discrete when attempting to access help.

Many shelters have been named “essential services,” especially in the United States, and this has allowed shelters to maintain operation of their in-person services, although these shelters are quickly becoming overcrowded. Advocates also warn that the pandemic may cause less people to seek these services due to the fear of contracting the virus. In addition, when victims are at home with their abusers, it may be more difficult for them to leave. It may also be more difficult to obtain legal services during this time, although many courts have moved proceedings online and have extended certain stipulations in order to protect victims and their children.

Although there have been efforts across the globe to address the increased risk that victims of domestic violence are now facing, gaps remain. Advocates around the world, as well governments and inter-governmental bodies like the United Nations, have led discussions on the alleviation of these barriers.

 Current state of affairs and principal concerns

Advocates around the world warn that shelter-at-home executive orders, sometimes called “safe at home” orders, will produce unintended and lethal consequences for domestic violence survivors, including:

  • Increased violence due to various aggravating factors, such as economic constraints, job loss, increased alcohol consumption and drug use, close proximity, children being at home
  • Pandemic-related abuse, such as:
    • Threatening to put victims on the street if they show symptoms
    • Making victims wash their hands until they bleed
    • Hiding essential items like hand sanitizer and soap from the victim
    • Threatening to cancel insurance
    • Circulating misinformation to victims to cause fear and deter them from leaving or seeking help;
  • Increased isolation from support systems, such as friends or family;
  • Travel restrictions that impact a victim’s escape or safety plan, or where it may not be safe for them to use public transportation or fly;
  • Decreased or eliminated access to safe havens like school, work, and community gatherings;
  • Difficulty accessing services, because of an:
    • Increased monitoring of phone activity by abusers
    • Inability to make hotline calls safely with abuser home
    • Decreased opportunities to escape
    • Decreased shelter space or shelters repurposed by the government to service COVID-19 patients
    • Fear of contracting the virus at shelters
    • Hotlines overwhelmed by increase in calls
    • Health systems that are overwhelmed by the pandemic, making it more difficult for survivors to access medical services, including therapy;
  • Increased anxiety and re-traumatization;
  • Homelessness;
  • Mental health consequences;
  • Decreased financial resources for victims to flee and support themselves due to job loss;
  • Decrease in family court approvals of requests for hearings;
  • Petitions not determined to be emergencies being dismissed or adjourned to a later date. These decisions may be made by someone in the court system screening electronically filed petitions, which could be life-or-death decisions for survivors;
  • Impacts on health workers, many of whom are women;
  • Reduced or limited access to vital sexual and reproductive health services, including for women subjected to violence.

What to do if you need help 

If you are in immediate danger in the U.S., call 911.

For help in Minnesota, call DayOne Hotline at 1-866-223-1111 or text 612-399-9995.

For help in the U.S., call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE(7233) or text LOVEIS to 22522. American Indians and Alaska Natives can also call the StrongHearts Native Helpline at 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483).

What The Advocates is doing to strengthen protections for women

The Advocates is currently collaborating with Violence Free MinnesotaMNCASA, and Standpoint to gather information about the challenges faced by Minnesota’s justice system in responding to domestic violence and sexual assault.

The Advocates is conducting fact-finding with systems actors to provide ongoing analyses of the issues and new challenges that systems actors and courts face under the COVID-19 situation that it can provide to Violence Free Minnesota, MNCASA, and Standpoint as they develop real-time guidance to strengthen systems’ responses.

This week, The Advocates will begin posting daily with COVID-19 response information for countries around the world.  Follow @TheAdvocatesforHumanRights on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn) for daily COVID-19 updates for countries around the world.

For more information on violence against women, visit our website StopVAW.org.

The Advocates for Human Rights Condemns U.S. Move to Block Asylum Seekers, Increase Detention Spending

The Advocates for Human Rights condemns plans by the administration to summarily return asylum seekers to Mexico without a hearing while simultaneously asking Congress for more than $800 million for federal immigration enforcement.  

On Tuesday The New York Times reported the White House plans, stating that “[u]nder the policy, asylum seekers would not be held for any length of time in an American facility nor would they be given due process.” Alongside the measure, the White House has requested more than $800 million in increased spending for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Roll Call reports the increased funding is earmarked for migrant quarantine facilities and for charter deportation flights to allow continued deportations despite commercial airline shutdowns.  

“This move, made at the very moment when federal immigration officials are refusing to release people from ICE detention centers who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19, makes clear that the administration has no interest in ensuring the health of people in its custody or in meeting its international human rights obligations,” says Robin Phillips, executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights. “While we are encouraged by Wednesday’s announcement by ICE that it will temporarily halt interior enforcement activities, people cannot be allowed to languish inside detention centers.  

“We call on Congress to reject the White House’s request for more money for immigration enforcement. We also call on the administration to comply with international obligations to ensure that people are not returned to torture or persecution without a hearing. By reuniting people with their families, rather than detaining or deporting them, we can keep our communities safe and meet our legal obligations.” 

Despite calls by immigration judges, prosecutors, and attorneys, federal immigration courts continue to hold deportation hearings for people in detention.  

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director 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.  

20 Ways to Support The Advocates for Human Rights in 2020

 

2020 Volunteer Pic

At The Advocates for Human Rights, we envision a world where every person lives with dignity, freedom, justice, equality, and peace. We rely on volunteers to move us closer to this ideal. Volunteers are an essential part of our mission. They create a bigger impact beyond the capacity of our limited staff resources. For example, we leveraged a cash budget of $1.8 million dollars into programs and services worth more than $11 million dollars in our last fiscal year. Furthermore, by involving individuals from all walks of life in the work of human rights, we jointly build a stronger human rights movement.

We are encouraged by our volunteers who work in the trenches to protect and promote human rights. There are many ways to engage with The Advocates for Human Rights. As we move into 2020, we want to share 20 ways you can work with The Advocates to move all of us closer to a world where the inherent dignity of every person is recognized and respected.

  1. Observe WATCH hearings on violence against women and children.
  2. Observe an Immigration Court hearing.
  3. Attend a human rights training, like our Asylum Conference, or case presentation.
  4. Sponsor or attend our annual Human Rights Awards Dinner.
  5. Take on a new affirmative asylum claim.
  6. Provide ongoing representation in removal proceedings.
  7. Help interpret for our clients in another language.
  8. Participate in United Nations advocacy.
  9. Conduct research for an ongoing project, like a United Nations shadow report.
  10. Volunteer at our front desk.
  11. Participate in one of our CLE offerings.
  12. Come to a house party and meet other volunteers and supporters.
  13. Tell your friends, colleagues, and family about The Advocates for Human Rights.
  14. Help us with our mailings.
  15. Take a shift at our State Fair booth.
  16. Host a salon or neighborhood gathering on a human rights issue.
  17. Attend an Asylum Support Network
  18. Write letters to representatives advocating for human rights.
  19. Give a presentation on a human rights issue at your faith community.
  20. Like us on social media and share our posts (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Blog)

We celebrate small victories as well as the bigger successes that combine to change the world for good. Every bit helps, and small steps are essential to building the larger movement. Thank you for all that you have done to make The Advocates such a strong organization.

We look forward to working with you in 2020 to build the human rights movement by involving individuals in other sectors in the work of human rights.