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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. 

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.  

Featured

Risking it all for Human Rights

Gretchen Piper speaking from Sarah Brenes
Volunteer Gretchen Piper speaking at a recent house party to support women’s human rights

Remarks from volunteer Gretchen Piper

Collectively, we risked nothing in attending tonight’s event—in coming together to advocate for others.

People around the world risk everything.

In July, Julianne and I attended a conference in Zagreb, the capital and largest city in Croatia. The conference was called by The Advocates for Human Rights. We were part of a team of 7 volunteers, trained by The Advocates, and assigned to collect the stories of 31 human rights defenders from 17 countries.

The first morning, we gathered in the hotel conference room at 8 a.m. Our first task was to find a coffee tin …

… to block cell phone signals.

Some participants worried their cell phones had been compromised, participants like Hanna from a Central European country. When her 8-year-old mobile phone was stolen during a lunch break, Hanna contacted her sister to let her know she was safe. She then activated her safety protocol to ensure that her phone was not compromised.

With the tin can secured, Julianne and I opened the conference with a talking circle. Our job was to quickly establish an environment of safety and trust—so people would share their stories.

As they did, a terrifying pattern emerged: the rise of populism and the radical right have fueled violence against women, the LGBT community and immigrants across the globe.

Participants shared harrowing stories of violence, of police ignoring hate crimes—of courts not enforcing laws that protect vulnerable communities.

What is as terrifying as the violence itself is this fact:

Violence. Discrimination. Human Rights Abuses. They are a tactic in a larger geopolitical effort to ensure that powerful global business interests have their candidates in elected positions of power.

Our new friends from Italy, Austria, Belarus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, and Ukraine cited examples of extremist candidates elected by inciting fear of immigrants, of losing their “native” cultures, of ceding to gender politics.

The right is well organized, disciplined and well-coordinated … around the globe.

The right is a force we need to match, and The Advocates for Human Rights is on the forefront of that battle. With more than 20 years of experience in working with women’s groups in Europe, providing advocacy, legal training, and research, The Advocates is a trusted partner. They have a proven track record of leveraging skilled volunteers and building local capacity for action.

Rose and her team had prepared us well.

The conference galvanized the participants. They vowed to support one another, to reclaim human rights tools for rapid response to defend against false information and media attacks. To train lawyers, work with police and prosecutors, to learn effective communications strategies, to share resources and continue to meet—no matter the risks.

Two weeks after I returned home, I was sitting in my car, waiting for my kids to finish practice, thinking about what to make for dinner, what work I needed to finish. I picked up my phone and scrolled through the headlines.

In my news feed, was my new friend, Svetlana, an LGBT advocate in Russia whom I had met at the conference in Croatia.

Svetlana was speaking about her colleague, Yelena Grigoryeva, a well-known LGBT activist in Russia. Yelena had been found stabbed to death—murdered—outside her St. Petersburg apartment.

Days earlier, Yelena had gone to the police to report that she was on a “Gay Kill List.”

Just this past week, Svetlana, was in the news again. She and her colleagues in the Russian LBGT community were imploring the police and the ministry of internal affairs to solve Yelena’s murder—to find the people behind the Gay Hit List, a list published by an anonymous online group called Saw, after the American cult horror film. Saw continues their assault, offering cash for murders—and telling LBGT activists that unless they murder their own colleagues, they themselves will be killed.

Julianne and I don’t want to lose another friend, which is why we teamed up today to ask for your help.

Help people who are risking it all. Support The Advocates for Human Rights at TheAdvocatesForHumanRights.org/donate.

Gretchen Piper is a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights and President of Gretchen Piper, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, fund raising, and marketing.

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Featured

Turkey in Danger of Returning to the Death Penalty

flag of turkey
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

On the heels of the July 2016 attempted coup, Turkish officials expressed their intention to reinstate the death penalty for “child killers” and terrorists. The Deputy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) threatened that the government would introduce a bill calling for the execution of rebel soldiers involved in the coup. President Erdogan stated that he would approve any legislation brought forth by the government to restore the death penalty. The following month, far-right leader of the Great Unity Party, Mustafa Destici, announced that a proposal to reinstate the death penalty would be introduced to Turkey’s parliament in October of that year.

Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 and made abolition permanent in March 2006 when it ratified the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (OP2-ICCPR). The Protocol states that “[n]o one within the jurisdiction of a State Party to the present Protocol shall be executed” and “[e]ach State Party shall take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction.” OP2-ICCPR does not authorize a State Party to subsequently withdraw ratification.

Reinstating the death penalty contradicts Turkey’s obligation to abolish capital punishment as a State Party to OP2-ICCPR. What’s deeply troubling is not just that Turkey would renege on its international human rights obligations and resume the use of a cruel and dehumanizing penalty, but that the Turkish government has major motivation to do so in an effort to silence its political opposition and marginalized groups.

Remember how Turkish officials pushed to assign the death penalty specifically to “terrorists” in the wake of the attempted coup in 2016? Terrorist, in this context, seems to be code for dissident. Since 2016, the Turkish Government has used counter-terrorism efforts as a means of cracking down on political opposition. Charges of “terrorism,” “terrorist sympathy,” and “terrorist propaganda” are levied against journalists, academics, and activists who oppose the Turkish Government’s actions and policies. In addition to stifling opposition voices, the government regularly uses charges of terrorism to further persecute the already vulnerable Kurdish community. The Turkish government has historically targeted the Kurdish people; Turkish nationalism promotes both the assimilation and the elimination of non-Turkish minority groups, such as Kurds and Armenians.

In the defense of human rights, it is critical that we say the quiet part out loud: if Turkey reinstates the death penalty under the pretext of using it as a means to combat vaguely defined “terrorism,” Turkish authorities will wield it unjustly to permanently rid Turkish authorities of political opponents. As Turkey’s government institutions are characterized by weak separation of powers, compromising the independence of the judiciary, reinstatement of the death penalty would place even more power in the hands of the executive branch. Reinstatement of the death penalty is a threat not only to journalists and human rights defenders, but also to the Kurdish community, which already faces ethnically motivated persecution and violence at the hands of the Turkish state.

The Advocates for Human Rights frequently collaborates with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, serving on its Steering Committee and leading the Coalition’s advocacy at the United Nations. The UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a mechanism during which each nation reports on the state of human rights within its jurisdiction and receives recommendations from its peers—other nations around the world. It is an opportunity for The Advocates and other civil society organizations to lobby UN member states on issues like the death penalty. Often we urge governments to adopt best practices and ratify treaties, usually in response to reports of human rights violations.

Turkey’s third UPR is scheduled for January 28, 2020. Turkey has signed and ratified the relevant treaties, the death penalty has been struck from the law. To defend the Turkish people’s right to life, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression, The Advocates will lobby governments to press the Turkish Government to make further commitments to uphold the country’s international human rights obligations.

As an intern in the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights, my work focuses on preparing for and evaluating the success of our lobbying efforts at the UN. Researching the death penalty in Turkey feels like a departure from the norm; past lobbying efforts have been successful and the death penalty was abolished officially, and yet the threat remains. In instances like these, The Advocates and its partners recognize how vital it is to act and advocate proactively to prevent future human rights violations. It is a reminder that even in countries and regions where we can celebrate progress, the protection and maintenance of human rights is ongoing and critical work, whether across the globe or in our own backyards.

You have the power to take action in the face of human rights violations. Learn what you can do to assist The Advocates for Human Rights in our work here. Learn more about our work to end the death penalty here.

By Grace Curtiss, rising junior at the University of Minnesota and summer 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. 

Advocates for Indigenous and Minority Rights

Samone with Marcia Kran HRComm member
Samone Khouangsathiene from the Tai Studies Center briefed the UN Human Rights Committee on indigenous rights in Vietnam

The Advocates for Human Rights recently sent a delegation to the United Nations Office at Geneva. In addition to staff and volunteers, our delegation included representatives of partner organizations advocating for indigenous and minority rights.  The Advocates  partnered with The Tai Studies Center to draw attention to the discrimination and violence experienced by the Tai indigenous people in Vietnam.  With diaspora-based United Oromo Voices, The Advocates submitted a report on ethnic minorities in Ethiopia for consideration as part of Ethiopia’s Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council.

While in Geneva, our delegation participated in the discussion around the Special Rapporteur on Minority Rights’ report to the UN Human Rights Council. The agenda for this meeting was focused on the Special Rapporteur’s country visits this past year to Botswana and Slovenia, and the issues minorities face there. The Advocates highlighted for the Special Rapporteur and the Council members that minorities face similar issues in Vietnam and Ethiopia.  As a non-governmental organization with Special Consultative status, The Advocates can participate in interactive dialogues by making oral statements at the Human Rights Council. These two-minute statements are our opportunity to share our concerns with the Council, and they are recorded and published afterward on the UN website. Nagessa Dube from United Oromo Voices made the oral statement on behalf of The Advocates for Human Rights.

As an intern, I helped draft the oral statement on minority rights. Through the drafting process, I had the opportunity to learn more about the obstacles and harassment encountered by indigenous and ethnic minorities within these countries. Although these human rights issues are ongoing and The Advocates continues to receive reports of abuses from our clients, they are often forgotten by global media attention.

Here’s what we must continue to pay attention to:

In Vietnam, the government refuses to acknowledge the Tai people’s indigenous status and right to self-determination. Along with other local indigenous groups, they face barriers to land management and the state denies them adequate compensation for the resulting damage to their livelihoods. They struggle against cycles of poverty, discrimination from the majority community, and limited access to public services, electricity, and water. The Vietnamese government continues to confiscate land from indigenous groups; the Tai and other groups’ lands in Highlands’ villages have been confiscated without full compensation for state economic development projects. The government arbitrarily detains and disappears members of indigenous groups, and suppresses protesters by using national security provisions to claim that potential ties of indigenous groups to organizations abroad promote so-called “separatist aims.”

In Ethiopia, the state has continually subjected members of the minority Ogaden and Oromo communities to the arbitrary confiscation of land and ethnic persecution since the beginning of Ethiopian rule over the Somali region in 1948. In November 2015, large scale protests began in Oromia in opposition to the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which intended to forcibly displace the minority Oromos from their homes in favor of expansion of the territory of the capital city. Various Advocates clients interviewed reported that many Oromo people were injured and killed during the 2015 Irreechaa protests after security forces fired into crowds. Many of those who survived the massacre were taken into government custody. The Government of Ethiopia continues to subject minority populations to violence and arbitrary arrests.

Partners presenting at side event at UN in Geneva

I was excited to watch the delegation present our concerns to the Special Rapporteur in Geneva over the UN WebTV from my Minneapolis desk. It was rewarding to know that for those two minutes, our advocacy held the attention of the Special Rapporteur and the entire Human Rights Council. Afterward, the delegation facilitated a side event for both Vietnam and Ethiopia minority rights. The side event allowed both representatives more time to educate and advocate for the issues that minorities in these countries face.  Furthermore, it allowed representatives of many minority groups to build solidarity, highlighting the similarities of indigenous minority struggles all across the world.

I talked to The Advocates’ partners who participated in the delegation about their experiences advocating for indigenous and minority rights at the United Nations.

Samone Khouangsathiene with The Tai Studies Center reflected that “regardless of which country or which indigenous group we are from, we all have similar human rights violations occurring.  Indigenous people are being marginalized and even decimated by ruling governments around the world.” However, by the end of the event she left with a sense of hope:

Through my attendance I put Tai Dam concerns front and center not only to the Human Rights Committee but to the Vietnamese delegation.  This “face to face” showed the delegation that the Tai Dam backed by the UN holds the government accountable.  The Tai Dam are no longer voiceless.

Nagessa Dube from United Oromo Voices had a similar perspective. He appreciated the opportunity to develop connections and build relationships with different advocates and organizations in attendance. He hopes that the outcome of his time in Geneva will encourage the government of Ethiopia to listen to the recommendations of The Advocates by halting human rights violations against indigenous communities and committing to reparations for past damages.

By Alison Brady, Macalester College Class of 2019 and spring 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. 

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.