Featured

Celebrating victories in an imperfect system

Woman embracing sky 2I will admit that when I realized that I had scheduled myself for court observation the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, I had not considered all the last-minute errands that would be put on my list, as the sole able-bodied member of my household.  So when I woke up to heavy snowfalls and school cancellations that Wednesday morning, I felt a small surge of relief, mixed with guilt. However, when I called, I was informed that Immigration Court was moving forward, full stop. So out I went.

When I saw this particular case involved a woman (I’ll call her Mary – not her real name), my interest was piqued.  It’s not all that common for women to appear on the detained docket at the Fort Snelling Immigration Court. The facts of the case were sad:  Mary had been arrested after a loud, violent domestic incident had been reported to the police.  I do not know whether her partner was also arrested.  An immigration judge had already denied her request for release on bond, citing the domestic assault charges as evidence that she was a danger to the community.

But today her request was being re-heard by a different judge.

With her was a new lawyer, and his impassioned defense was the first inkling that this hearing was not business as usual.

The judge explained that she needed evidence of a material change in circumstances in order to consider granting release on bond. The attorney replied that her previous counsel had been ineffective.  The previous counsel had failed to uncover the years of domestic abuse that Mary had endured at the hands of her partner. He not only abused Mary, but also threatened her children, several of whom were in the courtroom that day.  Her lawyer emphasized that no one had spoken directly to the children during the police investigation of the incident.

He submitted a 315-page document to support the request for a bond, including dozens of affidavits of support from her community.  He said that she had never been in trouble with the law previously, that this was her sole offense, and most importantly, that she had been acting in self-defense of herself and her children.  Mary had an upcoming child custody hearing with this partner and was determined to retain custody of her minor children.  She was clearly not a flight risk, because that hearing was her top priority.

The attorney asked for a $2000 bond because of their impoverished circumstances and the fact that she had been in custody for nine months. NINE months! [me, not the attorney]

Imagine my surprise when the judge almost interrupted the government lawyer to say that she was going to rule in Mary’s favor.  There was a slight difficulty with the microphones that day which made hearing just a tad more difficult, and the judge was speaking rapidly.  Everyone in the courtroom leaned forward to hear what she was saying.  She went on to cite well-established research in the area of domestic violence that found that typically law-abiding and nonviolent individuals will resort to self-defense to protect their children. In a high percentage of cases, women’s use of violence is actually reactionary or defensive and often preceded by severe acts of violence by their partners.

By that time, her words had been translated. I looked over and saw that Mary was sobbing.  The judge set the bond at $5000 and the attorney wheeled around to look at her daughters to get the OK.  They were both sobbing but they nodded yes.  Then I saw that most everyone in the courtroom was teary-eyed and some were openly crying. I’m crying now as I remember. Mary managed to gasp out “thank you, thank you” as she was led away.

I stopped myself from running after the daughters to write them out a check for $5000.  Really, I’m not sure what good retirement savings are – they seem like almost unbearable privilege – when we live at a time when such terrible indignities can be visited upon people like Mary.  But I knew that it would be breaking the rules of no interaction with those we observe.  I was glad to have learned through the Human Rights Defender Project (court observation) about the immigration bond fund with The Minnesota Freedom Fund.

I was very glad to have witnessed such an uplifting outcome for Mary, even though the way ahead would be difficult. She would be with her family at Thanksgiving and that was a tremendous blessing for us all.

Sue

 

 

By Susan Herridge, a volunteer court observer with The Advocates for Human Rights under the Human Rights Defender Project.

 

 

About the Human Rights Defender Project:  People detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) face barriers to basic human rights. While people detained by ICE have the right to legal counsel, they do not have the right to a government-appointed attorney. Many people, regardless of age or capability, have to represent themselves in immigration court. Detention undermines the ability to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, to remain with family, and to a fair day in court. Although immigration court hearings are open to the public, few people witness these proceedings.

The Human Rights Defender Project Court Observers help bring transparency and accountability to this system. Court Observers attend hearings and report on issues of concern including access to counsel, family and community support, and interpretation; the manner of arrest; and the ability of individuals to raise defenses to deportation.

No immigration experience or law license is needed. This community service opportunity is open to all. Court observers must have valid government-issued photo identification to enter the immigration court. Learn more and volunteer here.

This project currently is open to observers at the Fort Snelling Immigration Court only.

 

 

 

Understanding the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act

FeaturedUnderstanding the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act

The passage of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act ends nearly 30 years of “temporary” status for thousands of Liberians. Signed into law on December 20, 2019, LRIFA provides a singular ray of hope in an otherwise bleak immigration landscape.

LRIFA means that many Liberians who have lived in limbo may now move forward toward permanent residence and citizenship. But while the law has generous eligibility requirements, its short filing window means Liberians need to act quickly to assess their eligibility.

Who is eligible?

  1. Any Liberian national who has been continuously present in the United States during the period beginning November 20, 2014 and the date on which the application under LRIFA is filed or
  2. The spouse, child, or unmarried son or daughter of a person described in (1).

When can I file my application? 

USCIS announced that it has begun accepting LRIFA applications as of December 26, 2019. All applications must be filed within 1 year of the date of LRIFA’s enactment or no later than December 19, 2020.

I was on Ebola TPS. Am I eligible?

Any Liberian who has been continuously present in the United States during the period beginning November 20, 2014 and the date you file your application is eligible.

I have DED or DACA or am on a valid non-immigrant visa (F-1, H-1B, etc.) right now. Am I eligible?

Any Liberian who has been continuously present in the United States during the period beginning November 20, 2014 and the date you file your application is eligible.

I’m not on DED now. I never had TPS. Am I eligible?

Any Liberian who has been continuously present in the United States during the period beginning November 20, 2014 and the date you file your application is eligible.

I have traveled outside the United States. Will I still be eligible?

Possibly. You must have been “continuously present” in the United States between November 20, 2014 and the date you apply under LRIFA. You have been “continuously present” even if you have made a few short trips outside the United States. If your trips add up to more than 180 days outside the United States you will not be eligible.

Can I travel now?

The LRIFA does not give you permission to come into the country. If you leave, you may not be able to return. Check with an immigration lawyer before leaving the United States.

I have a criminal history. Will I still be eligible?

Possibly, but you should check with an immigration lawyer before filing any papers. You will not be eligible if you have been convicted of any aggravated felony or two or more crimes involving moral turpitude.

I took part in the Liberian civil war. Will I be eligible?

Possibly, but you should check with an immigration lawyer before filing any papers. The LRIFA says that anyone who has ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion is not eligible for a green card under the LRIFA.

I have a final order of deportation. What do I need to do?

The LIRFA is clear that DHS must establish a process to “stay” (stop) any LIRFA applicant’s removal order while the application is pending. That means that once you file your LIRFA application, you cannot be deported unless your LIRFA application is denied.

If you were ordered deported because your asylum application was denied, you overstayed your visa, you did not renew your DED or TPS, for other reasons besides a criminal conviction, you should be eligible under the LRIFA. You will not need to file a motion to reopen. If you were ordered deported because of a criminal conviction, you might not be eligible. Talk to an immigration lawyer before you file anything.

I am in detention with a final order of deportation. What should I do?

We do not expect ICE to attempt to deport people who are eligible for LIRFA. Liberians in detention who may be eligible for LIRFA should:

  • Tell your detention officer that you intend to apply for LIRFA.
  • Contact your immigration attorney to make a plan for filing the application as soon as possible. If you do not have an immigration attorney, contact the free legal service providers who work at your detention center or call 612-341-9845.
  • Make sure a trusted family member or friend knows where you are. They can check the ICE Online Detainee Locator with your full name and date of birth or A-number.

I do not have a work permit right now. Can I work under LRIFA?

Once you file your LRIFA application you will be able to apply for employment authorization. DHS may issue you a work permit right away. If your LRIFA application for adjustment of status is pending for a period exceeding 180 days and has not been denied, DHS must authorize employment.

How can I get ready to file my LRIFA application?

  • Save money. You will need to pay the filing fee and a biometrics fee. At this time the fee is $1,225 for an adult, and the fees are scheduled to increase (make sure to check the USCIS.gov website for up-to-date filing fee information when you are ready to file). You will also need an immigration medical exam, which may not be covered by insurance.
  • Gather proof of continuous presence. You will need to show that you have been “continuously present” in the United States as of November 20, 2014. USCIS will provide more instructions about what you will need, but you will likely need copies of some documents like pay stubs, leases, or other records showing you were in the United States. If you traveled outside the United States, you will need to calculate the exact number of days you were outside the country.
  • Make a list of your addresses and your employers from the last 5 years. The application form asks for this information.
  • If you ever filed for asylum, get a copy of that application and have an immigration lawyer review it before you file.

Do I need a lawyer?

You should talk with an experienced immigration lawyer or BIA accredited representative if you have any questions about how to file your application or whether you are eligible for LRIFA adjustment. Every case is different, so do not rely on advice given to someone else. Get your own answers before you file.

  • Criminal convictions may affect your eligibility for LRIFA adjustment. Talk to a lawyer before you file.
  • What you said in your asylum application may affect your eligibility for LRIFA adjustment. Talk to a lawyer before your file.

How do I find an immigration lawyer?

  • You can hire a lawyer to prepare and file your application and help respond to any questions from USCIS. You can also consult with a lawyer to answer questions. Different lawyers charge different fees. Ask about fees before you agree to have the lawyer represent you. Ask whether they charge a flat fee or charge by the hour. Ask about payment plan options. Always get a fee agreement (sometimes called a retainer agreement) in writing. Take time to review it before signing. You can find immigration lawyers at www.ailalawyer.com
  • Free legal services may be available if you have a low income. You can find free and low-cost legal services at www.immigrationlawhelp.org. We know our colleagues at the Black Immigrant Collective will be organizing events in Minnesota. Watch for community legal advice clinics near you.

Where do I find forms and filing instructions?

The federal government’s website is the best place to find accurate information about filing your LRIFA application. Check www.uscis.gov/i-485. Each tab on the page contains specific information about LRIFA applications.

Note: This blog is not legal advice. Every case is different. Please consult with an experienced immigration attorney before making any decision about your case.

Featured

New Help for Volunteer Attorneys Representing Domestic Violence Survivors

Matter of A-B-

Imagine you suffered years of near daily physical, sexual, and psychological abuse from your husband in silence, knowing that every time you tried to escape, he found you and beat you worse for attempting to leave him.

Imagine he told you that you were his property and your role as his wife was to serve him for the rest of your life.

Imagine you go to the police, begging them to keep you safe. They refuse, saying that your husband has the right to discipline his wife how he chooses. Your husband finds out and beats you worse to punish you for going to the police.

Terrified, you flee with your children to the United States, determined to give them a better life. You have heard that, in the United States, people believe women should have the same rights as men. You hear that there are laws in the United States against domestic violence, and that the laws are followed.

After a dangerous journey, you finally reach the United States. You file for asylum, but while your case is pending the law protecting domestic violence survivors changes. Now you live in fear that you will be deported back to the nightmare you and your children fled.

This situation is the lived reality of many domestic violence survivors represented by The Advocates for Human Rights and our volunteer attorneys. In the summer of 2018, Attorney General Jeffrey B. Sessions issued a decision in Matter of A-B- that threw into question the well-established precedent recognizing a protected group for survivors of domestic violence whose home country governments did not protect them from their abusers.

Following the Matter of A-B- decision, many judges around the country have recognized that domestic violence survivors who cannot receive protection from their home country governments continue to qualify for protection. In too many cases, however, judges have used this decision to deny protection to women and children fleeing domestic and family violence.

To support the efforts of our volunteer attorneys and others in the Eighth Circuit arguing for protection of asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence, we have issued Gender-Based Asylum Claims in the Wake of Matter of A–B– A Supplement for Practice in the Eighth Circuit. Drafted with our pro bono partners at Gray Plant Mooty, this practice advisory includes extensive strategy guidance that advocates can use to protect their clients.

Please consider taking a pro bono case with The Advocates for Human Rights today. Your work can save the lives, and families, of domestic violence survivors.

By Alison Griffith, a staff attorney working for refugee and immigrant rights at The Advocates for Human Rights

Proposed Regulation Seeks to Remove Adjudication Deadline, Threatens to Leave Asylum Seekers Without Work Authorization Indefinitely

FeaturedProposed Regulation Seeks to Remove Adjudication Deadline, Threatens to Leave Asylum Seekers Without Work Authorization Indefinitely

Asylum seekers in the United States may not work without authorization from federal immigration authorities. Proposed regulations threaten to leave asylum seekers without employment authorization indefinitely which they await decisions on their asylum applications.

Federal law prohibits asylum applicants from receiving employment authorization unless their applications have been pending at least 180 days. 8 U.S.C. § 1158(d)(2). Current regulations seek to ensure that people with pending asylum applications can work as soon as authorized by statute. The administration has proposed new regulations that would eliminate the regulatory time frame in which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must grant or deny the employment authorization application.

Under existing federal law, a person with a pending asylum application may apply for and receive authorization to work while their asylum application is pending. Regulations require an asylum applicant to wait at least 150 days after submitting an asylum application before they may apply for employment authorization. DHS, in turn, must process the application within 30 days of receipt, making the total wait time about six months after applying for asylum. 8 CFR § 208.7(a)(1).

The Department of Homeland Security has flagrantly disregarded the 30-day rule, resulting in a 2018 federal court order requiring DHS to comply with its own regulation and process applications within the required timeframes. Rosario v. USCIS. [1]

Rather than complying with the federal court order, DHS is trying to change the rule. On September 9, 2019, USCIS issued a proposed regulation to eliminate the 30-day processing rule and give the agency an unlimited window in which to process work permit applications.[2]

DHS is currently accepting comments on the proposed elimination of the 30-day processing time, and we encourage those concerned to submit such comments.

WHY THIS MATTERS

The Advocates for Human Rights is concerned that this change will harm clients, businesses, and communities by further delaying the time an asylum applicant must wait to legally work or get a driver’s license while their application is pending. This change will burden private support systems and charities, make it difficult for small businesses to find workers, and could have multiplier effects in terms of destabilizing communities. The Advocates is also concerned that this change represents yet another attack on the part of this Administration, which has consistently attempted to impede the right to seek asylum.

Of particular concern is the proposed elimination of the 30-day rule without providing a maximum processing time. Already, the six-month waiting period places a heavy burden on asylum seekers who were forced to flee, often having to leave behind or spend in transit any resources they may have had.

Asylum seekers today face long backlogs in asylum processing, often waiting years after filing the asylum application for an interview and, even later, a decision. Asylum seekers are often vulnerable, with medical and mental health needs due to their trauma and persecution. Generally excluded from public assistance, asylum seekers must work to provide food, clothing, shelter, and other basic needs for themselves and their families. Asylum seekers who were forced to leave spouses and children behind must save thousands of dollars to pay for travel expenses. Without employment authorization, asylum seekers are dependent on individual and other private charity.

Indefinitely blocking asylum seekers’ ability to support themselves and their families is an abuse of discretion and an attempt to further deter people from seeking asylum in the United States. The proposed rule comes on top of extreme adjudication delays by USCIS across all types of cases and recent changes in USCIS customer service procedures which make it nearly impossible to follow up on pending cases.

In addition, the proposed rule is part of a pattern of animus towards the right to seek asylum this administration has shown. The justifications contained in the proposed rule are veiled attempts to justify what is an attack on the rights of asylum seekers and a pattern of practice by this administration aimed at breaking the asylum system.

The Administration attempts to justify the proposed rule on the basis of national security and vetting concerns and on administrative efficiency interests. In terms of administrative efficiency, the proposed rule notes the burden that has resulted from shifting staff to timely process EAD applications in compliance with Rosario v. USCIS and claims there will be a cost saving by eliminating the timeline. However, it notes “USCIS could hire more officers, but has not estimated the costs of this and therefore has not estimated the hiring costs that might be avoided if this proposed rule were adopted.”

The proposal also cites vague security concerns which the federal court in Rosario found to be sufficiently low to order USCIS to comply with the 30-day processing deadline. Any need for additional vetting prior to issuance of employment authorization could be addressed by less draconian means than simply eliminating the processing parameters for all applicants.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. The United States has committed to that principle through the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Refugee Convention and Protocol, and the Convention Against Torture. This right has been codified in federal law. Without access to a means of basic support during the asylum process, the United States weakens its commitment to this fundamental human right.

WHAT TO DO

We encourage our volunteers, communities, and supporters—as well as applicants themselves—to submit a comment to USCIS discouraging this change.  Directions for how to do so can be found below, and sample wording is provided. Comments must be received on or before November 8, 2019.

In particular, DHS is specifically seeking comments on the following items.  Therefore, comments by supporters who have specific knowledge or relation to the following topics would be encouraged:

  • DHS also acknowledges the distributional impacts associated with an applicant waiting for an EAD onto the applicant’s support network. DHS cannot determine how much monetary or other assistance is provided to such applicants. DHS requests comments from the public on any data or sources that demonstrate the amount or level of assistance provided to asylum applicants who have pending EAD applications.
  • DHS requests comments from the public that would assist in understanding costs not described herein as relates to the impact on small businesses (referencing the IRFA).

HOW TO SUBMIT A COMMENT

You may submit comments on the entirety of this proposed rule package, which is identified as DHS Docket No. USCIS-2018-0001, by any one of the following methods:

· Mail: Samantha Deshommes, Chief, Regulatory Coordination Division, Office of Policy and Strategy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security, 20 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Mailstop #2140, Washington, DC 20529-2140. To ensure proper handling, please reference DHS Docket No. USCIS-2018-0001 in your correspondence. Mail must be postmarked by the comment submission deadline. Please note that USCIS cannot accept any comments that are hand delivered or couriered. In addition, USCIS cannot accept mailed comments contained on any form of digital media storage devices, such as CDs/DVDs and USB drives.

[1] Available at: https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/sites/default/files/litigation_documents/rosario_vs_uscis_order_granting_plaintiffs_motion_for_summary_judgment_and_denying_defendants_motion_for_summary_judgment.pdf

[2] Available at: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/09/09/2019-19125/removal-of-30-day-processing-provision-for-asylum-applicant-related-form-i-765-employment

Make every day Labor Day

FeaturedMake every day Labor Day

It’s Labor Day in America, a time to celebrate the important labor protections guaranteed to us all. Today, thanks to organized labor, workers by law have a right to various protections, including timely payment, minimum wage, overtime pay, workplace safety, freedoms from harassment and discrimination, and more. Despite these protections, some employers violate these labor rights.

Of particular concern are those violations that constitute labor trafficking—a significant issue that gets far too little attention. Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has identified more than 5,000 victims and survivors of labor trafficking. The number of unidentified victims, of course, is much higher. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are more than 20 million victims of labor trafficking worldwide—with about 1.5 million in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

U.S. law defines labor trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.” (Trafficking Victims Protection Act, 22 USC § 7102(9)). In other words, it is a situation in which a person is forced to perform labor or services through threats or use of violence, lies, and other forms of coercion. Labor trafficking can happen across international borders, state borders, or even within one city—movement is not required. Both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens may be victims or perpetrators. And, it’s likely touched your life in some way or another—the food you are eating, the house you are living in, the hotel you’ve stayed at, etc.

While U.S. citizens can become victims of trafficking, many non-citizens are particularly vulnerable. For these folks, trafficking can begin or occur in their home countries, along their journey, or once they have arrived in the United States. Because traffickers prey on vulnerabilities, foreign nationals have significant risk factors due to language differences, cultural connections, community ties, resources, unfamiliarity with the law, and immigration status.

Recognizing these vulnerabilities—and the important role victims play in reporting, investigating and leading to punishment of traffickers—U.S. law has made some efforts to help. U.S. legislation provides special non-permanent status (“T nonimmigrant visa/status”) to victims who are in the U.S. on account of severe forms of trafficking and have been helpful to law enforcement in investigating and/or prosecuting traffickers. Providing this form of lawful status gives many victims the courage to confront their trafficker without fear of being deported, allowing for increased investigation and punishment of trafficking. It also provides a crucial path toward ensuring survivors can leave dangerous situations and have resources to recover and move forward after being trafficked.

Yet, the T visa is too rarely utilized. Federal law provides for 5,000 T-1 visas annually. Since its inception, however, that quota has never been reached. This indicates, in part, the difficulty of identifying victims. However, it also indicates the difficulty of getting a T visa approved. In 2018, there were 1,613 T visa applications; however, USCIS approved only 576 that year—about 35 percent.[1] That same year, USCIS denied 300 applications, and the rest remain pending.[2] By comparison, in 2015, USCIS received 1,040 applications and approved more than half.[3]

The current anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy exacerbates the problem. Workers who might otherwise attempt to leave a trafficking situation or report their trafficker may be too fearful to do so. Employers may use such immigration policies to further exploit laborers, banking on the fact that migrant laborers don’t know their rights or the protections offered by law, and citing increased immigration enforcement as a threat. Additionally, amid the push to ramp up the deportation machine, immigration officers may take less care in determining whether someone is a potential victim or witness of trafficking instead of a deportable migrant.

The recent raid in Mississippi reflects this. More than 600 people were taken by immigration officials. There is no automatic screening for trafficking, despite the fact that these folks have a right to seek protections, and likely have important information that could help stop trafficking or other forms of labor exploitation. Nonetheless, the employer is continuing to operate and was not immediately charged, unlike its non-citizen employees.

In our work, The Advocates for Human Rights seeks to support victims of trafficking by strengthening the legal response to trafficking, conducting community outreach, victim identification, and providing legal services and referrals for support to victims. Since our labor trafficking program started about two years ago, we have assisted nearly 50 clients who are victims of severe forms of human trafficking. Luckily, for each of them, the T nonimmigrant visa allows them some measure of protection and a road to recovery.

Unfortunately, however, this path is becoming more fraught. It is now taking about 18 months for cases to be processed—time in which the vulnerable victim of trafficking must often wait far from family and with little support network. The Trump Administration is also making the path more difficult with increased demands for more evidence, denials of requests to waive fees despite statutory authority, protracted decision making, and greater resistance to providing protections.

Moreover, in the anti-immigrant climate, victims that were already fearful of reporting and interacting with the government are all the more fearful due to the harsh stance on immigration. And, with the government less likely to use mechanisms designed to encourage and support reporting (such as Continued Presence and Deferred Action), many victims remain in precarious situations. Unfortunately, while the federal government remains vocal about ending trafficking and supporting victims in theory, the current anti-immigrant posture of the administration has also meant that foreign national trafficking victims are not seeing that in practice.

As we celebrate this Labor Day, we need increased awareness of those who are being denied their labor rights due to labor trafficking, and are eager for the Federal Government to take greater strides towards preventing and punishing labor trafficking while properly supporting victims, regardless of their immigration status.

Lindsey Greising is a staff attorney in The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program.

[1] https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Resources/Reports%20and%20Studies/Immigration%20Forms%20Data/Victims/I914t_visastatistics_fy2019_qtr2.pdf

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

Asylum Under Attack

FeaturedAsylum Under Attack

The current administration in Washington is waging an all-out war on asylum, which it falsely characterizes as a charade or loophole rather than an essential human right. While the war is focused on the influx of refugees at the southern border who flee violence and chaos in Central America, it threatens to demolish protections for refugees all over the world who come to the United States seeking safety. The Advocates for Human Rights deals every day with the desperate ones whose fates are at issue. Since policy affects real people, it is instructive to examine the government’s anti-asylum initiatives in juxtaposition with just one of the many stories in our case files, which is used with our client’s consent.

Maria was 11 years old and living with her family in Guatemala when a 22-year-old man began preying upon her, inducing her to engage in a sexual relationship with him. Her father forbade her from seeing the man, but he coerced Maria into returning to him by threatening to harm her family if she didn’t. The man kept her locked in a room in his mother’s house.

Having failed in the courts with previous anti-immigration tactics, the U.S. government just launched two new attacks on asylum by executive fiat, with other assaults being planned..

At the age of 14, Maria was forced to marry her abductor. She went to the police in Guatemala, but they told her this was a domestic matter that she should “work out” with her husband. When Maria’s husband found out she had gone to the police, he beat her. As time went on, the beatings continued.

First, the administration announced that there would be a great expansion of the use of the expedited removal process, by which immigration courts and asylum officers are bypassed completely and lower-level immigration officials are allowed to apprehend and deport undocumented immigrants with no due process so long as they have not been in the country for two years. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has sharply criticized the expedited removal process, finding that border officials often are biased against asylum claims and fail to take steps necessary to ensure that asylum seekers are protected from arbitrary expedited removal. Nevertheless, the administration has embraced it.

Maria became pregnant and told her husband. He continued to beat her, so badly that she lost the baby. She escaped and hid with a family member, but her husband searched for her relentlessly. With no other escape from her situation, and no possibility of help from her country’s government, Maria embarked on the arduous and dangerous journey through Mexico and across the U.S. border.

A second attack on asylum was the announcement of a new rule excluding people from asylum if they failed to first ask for asylum in a country through which they travelled. While this rule would affect all refugees, it is directed mainly at the Central American refugees who cross through Mexico and Guatemala before reaching the United States.

Non-profit advocacy groups promptly sued, challenging the administration’s third- country rule. Among other grounds, they argued that the rule violates an express Congressional prohibition against relying on the asylum procedures of any country unless we have in place with that country a “safe country” agreement, ensuring their asylum procedures provide an acceptable level of safety for claimants. No such agreement exists with Mexico. (On July 26, the U.S. entered into a purported safe country agreement with Guatemala, even though Guatemala does not come close to meeting the standards for a safe country and was in fact the country from which Maria fled due to the lack of any governmental remedy for the domestic violence that threatened her life.)

On July 24, federal district courts on opposite coasts issued opinions concerning the new rule. U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly in the District of Columbia refused to enjoin the rule, essentially on a finding that the advocacy groups had failed to make a factual showing of standing to make their claims. The very same day, however, Judge Jon Tigar of the Northern District of California issued a lengthy opinion enjoining the rule, finding ample evidence that no reasonable asylum process was available in either Mexico or Guatemala. Appeals in both cases seem inevitable.

Maria found her way to The Advocates for Human Rights. Represented by Program Director Sarah Brenes, Maria won asylum. She is now living safely in the United States, where she is finishing high school and hopes to become a police officer.

Either of the latest attacks on asylum might have been used to deport Maria and send her back to her violent husband and a government unwilling to protect her. Can anyone believe that the United States would somehow have benefitted from that?

A humane asylum system is critical if we are to fulfill our legal and moral obligations to offer succor to the world’s most desperate. As many of us have been asking for some time now, what kind of country are we?

-James O’Neal, Board Chair of the Advocates for Human Rights

Featured

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.