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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.

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Understanding the Expansion of Expedited Removal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what should people do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom

FeaturedFreedom

…it seems that the concept of freedom no longer has a consensus understanding among the American people.  What’s more, we have lost our ability to engage in debate, a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. 

Until recently, I had not visited Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty.  Working with immigrants and asylum seekers has thus far defined my professional career, but my visit to Lady Liberty served as a reminder about our nation’s concept of freedom. The audio guide (love this modern invention) shared many new facts about Lady Liberty, reinforced ones commonly known and challenged visitors to define the statue’s significance to them.

At its inception in 1886, the Statue of Liberty was built as a sort of nod from the French to the United States which was, by then, a century-old democracy with a bright future, having recently withstood a civil war.

She was built filled with symbols: her torch as a sign of enlightenment; her sun ray crown sharing her light with the rest of the world; her tablet of laws symbolizing the importance of the rule of law; and at her feet, broken chains as a sign of freedom from slavery and political oppression.

A powerful part of the statue’s story is that the significance of her symbols has changed alongside U.S. history, a true sign of her aspirational nature.

In her early years, Lady Liberty was a symbol of hope, freedom and new beginnings, welcoming over 12 million new immigrants, accepting 98% of those who passed through Ellis Island from 1892-1954. During WWI and WWII, she welcomed troops back to the homeland, standing as a reminder of the freedoms they were fighting for while stationed in other parts of the world.  She now stands with the Manhattan skyline at her side, including the new World Trade Center, as a reminder of strength and resilience to rebuild in the name of freedom.

At the end of the tour, the audio guide challenged me (and everyone else who listened to it) to define what liberty means.

I was just about 10 when the Cold War ended, just over 20 when the Twin Towers fell and right around 30 when the Great Recession hit.  Each of these events has shaped my understanding of political, ideological and economic freedoms.  There was much debate among the American people about how much “liberty” could be sacrificed in order to protect “freedom” but little question about what “freedom” meant at the time.  At forty, it seems that the concept of freedom no longer has a consensus understanding among the American people.  What’s more, we have lost our ability to engage in debate, a cornerstone of a healthy democracy.

Immigration is one of the many issues where debate has become nearly impossible.  The last comprehensive reform to our immigration laws was over half a century ago.  The last meaningful attempt at reform was a decade ago. A week ago, without discussion or debate, our government temporarily closed the San Diego port of entry to asylum seekers and is attempting to close off the rest of the border permanently.

The 1980 Refugee Act amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to “revise the procedures for the [S. 643] admission of refugees, to amend the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962 to establish a more uniform basis for the provision of assistance to refugees, and for other purposes.” (Source: Public Law 96-212) Refugee law and humanitarian law recognize that refugees seeking safety cannot always follow an orderly immigration process when death is at their door. Thus, our laws allow for anyone in the U.S. to apply for asylum, regardless of how or where they entered.

Monday, December 10 is Human Rights Day and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person. It confirms that the State has a core duty to promote standards of life that enable us to enjoy equality and freedom, achieve justice, and live in peace.

I cannot think of a simpler concept of freedom than to be able to go to school, run your business, raise your family or live in your home without fearing that you might be killed.  As we turn our backs on these families and children seeking this most basic freedom that the Statue of Liberty symbolized, I cannot help but fear that in the next decade “freedom” in America will may lose its meaning altogether.

By Sarah Brenes, Director Refugee & Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

 

Using Theatre to Discuss Immigration with Children

FeaturedUsing Theatre to Discuss Immigration with Children

I Come from Arizona — a currently running Children’s Theatre Company production that is creating bridges for discussion.

When I was a child, I grew up on the East side of St. Paul. I lived in an old neighborhood that was home to people of diverse races, economic classes, sexual orientations, and religions. My own father was a refugee from Cambodia, and in 1995, he married a white woman and bought a house in that old neighborhood a year later. Our next-door neighbors were a large Mexican family, and when I was 9, the father was deported and my best friend at the time had to move away. I remember wondering if my father would ever be deported. I was told that it would never happen because he had become an official citizen. As a young child, this was a huge comfort.

That comfort of knowing that your parents are legally allowed in the United States is not something every child shares. I Come from Arizona is a play that seeks to have that conversation with younger audiences and their families/communities. It centers on the experience of a young girl named Gabi who learns that her family is undocumented from Mexico and her interactions with contrasting perspectives on immigration. It was premiered at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis October 9 and runs through November 25. Guest speakers from The Advocates for Human Rights have held post-play discussions to help audiences sift through the often challenging issues raised.
After the show, children from the audience have been invited to send their questions to Off-Book where CTC cast and crew and The Advocates can respond.

Here are some the questions and their answers:

Question: Why is the immigration debate always centered around Mexico and South America?

Madeline Lohman, Senior Researcher: “The immigration debate is centered around Mexico and Latin America for a few reasons. One is historical. Because of our land border with Mexico, it is true that the majority of undocumented immigrants in the past were from Mexico. This led opponents of undocumented immigration to equate it with Mexican immigration or even Mexican identity, when the vast majority of people of Mexican ancestry living in the United States are citizens or legal residents. Today, Mexicans may no longer be the majority of undocumented immigrants according to estimates from the Pew Research Center, which has some of the most reliable numbers on the topic. So, the focus on unauthorized immigration from Mexico is no longer accurate, but it still persists.

A second reason is racial prejudice. Immigrants from Mexico and Latin America are typically people of color and they share a common, non-English language. White, English-speaking citizens can see that they are different in a way that is more difficult with immigrants from Canada or most of Europe. Those white citizens may also have a family heritage from European countries that leads them to feel an affinity for immigrants from Europe that they do not feel for immigrants from Latin America. We can see the influence of racial prejudice in debates about refugee resettlement and granting asylum. When (white) Bosnians were fleeing during the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, there was far less push back than during today’s refugee crises in Syria, Central America, and Somalia.”

Question: Is it true that people have to walk through the desert to cross the border?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “Yes, it’s true. People often walk for many days through the desert to come to the United States.

People come to the United States for many reasons and in many different ways. Many people take airplanes, boats, or drive cars to visit or move to the United States. People who come to the United States need permission, called a “visa,” and need to be inspected and admitted by an officer at the border or airport. The government estimates that 76.9 million people came to the U.S. in 2017, mostly as visitors.

But the United States does not let everyone who wants or needs to come here into the country. People who want to visit, for example, have to prove they have enough money to travel and that they are going to return home when their trip is over in order to get a visa.

Sometimes people risk a dangerous journey to the United States so they can try to enter the country and get work to send money to their families. The United States only allows people to “immigrate” (move here permanently) if a close family member or employer in the United States files a “petition” with the government to let the person come here. But many people who want to come to the United States to build a better future for themselves and their families do not have someone to petition for them. For most, there is no way to legally immigrate. (The United States only allows people who can prove they will invest $1.0 million in a business to immigrate without a petition).

Some people have to leave their homes because they are not safe and come to the United States to seek asylum. People have to be in the United States or at a port-of-entry at the border or airport to ask for asylum — there’s no other process to follow. Asylum seekers from Central America and other countries sometimes make their way to the border on foot. More than 90,000 adults with children were apprehended by U.S. officials near the southern border in 2018.

Here is a good resource for learning more: Enrique’s Journey, a book by Sonia Nazario.”

Question: Why did Gabi’s mom have to lie to her [about their undocumented status]?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “Gabi’s mom was afraid that she would be deported if anyone found out she was in the United States without permission, which we sometimes call being “undocumented.”

People who don’t have permission from the U.S. government to be in the United States can be sent back to their home countries. This is called “deportation.”
Citizens cannot be deported from the United States. Today, everyone who is born in the United States is a U.S. citizen. People born outside the United States can become U.S. citizens through a legal process called “naturalization” where they take an oath of citizenship. U.S. citizens have permission to be here and cannot be deported.

But not everyone in the United States is a citizen. (The law calls anyone who is not a U.S. citizen an “alien”). Many people in the United States have permission to be in the country but are not citizens — they are permanent residents (we sometimes say they have a “green card”), visitors, students, or many other categories. People have to follow special rules and if they break the rules they can be deported. (For example, a person coming to visit the United States is not allowed to work here. If they work, they break the rules and can be deported).

Some people come into the United States without any permission or they stay in the United States after they were supposed to leave. They can be deported if the government finds out they are here without permission.

Here is a good resource for learning more: Documented, a film by Jose Antonio Vargas.”

Question: Do stories like this really happen?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “These stories really happen, and they may be happening to you or kids you know. This can be scary.

The government estimates there are about 11 million people in the United States who do not have permission to be here. About 6 million people under age 18 live with at least 1 undocumented family member.”

Question: Do ICE agents really take people away?

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director: “ICE agents arrest, detain, and deport people from the United States every day.

Since 2008, more than 2 million people have been arrested by ICE and more than 1.2 million people have been ordered deported by immigration judges. ICE reports that 226,119 people were removed from the United States in 2017.

Here is a good resource to learn your rights and make a plan: IMMI: free and simple information for immigrants.”

If you would like to stay up to date with the questions and answers, Off-Book will continue to post updates here.

Or, if you would like to join the conversation and attend I Come From Arizona, resources and tickets can be found here.

By Alyxandra Sego, an intern with The Advocates for Human Rights.

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“Go Home & Work It Out With Your Husband”: Why Sessions’ Ruling On Asylum Is So Devastating for Women Fleeing Domestic Violence

Woman covering face with handSome years ago, before the United States recognized that domestic violence was grounds for asylum, I represented a woman who was seeking asylum due to years of brutal violence inflicted upon her by her husband and the failure of her government to protect her.

“Ann” was a successful business person from East Africa who had experienced sexual, physical, psychological and emotional violence so extreme that she went to the police for help. Their response?

“Sorry, but this is a family matter – not a police matter. You have children. Go home and work it out with your husband. It will be better for all of you.”

So she went home. Her husband beat her until she passed out from the pain and blood loss as punishment for going to the police.

Because her business was so successful, she had the chance to expand the business to a neighboring country. She took the kids and moved, leaving no forwarding address. But he eventually found her there and, with support from the police, strongly “encouraged” her to move back to her country with the children. His family, as well as hers, also put pressure on her to stay in the marriage.

I met Ann because her husband was studying in the U.S. The beatings had intensified after the family moved here and she had called The Advocates for help. We had to meet to prepare the asylum application, but her husband, wary of her meeting with Americans, controlled where she went. We found surreptitious meeting places like the coffee shop near the daycare center so he would not suspect.

Perhaps others are not familiar with how much work goes into preparing a case for asylum in the United States. Asylum seekers must show, through both credible testimony and documentary evidence, that 1) they have a well-founded fear of persecution; 2) on the basis of political opinion, race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group; and 3) their government cannot or will not protect them. It is not an easy thing to do, to fit all the facts of your life and your fear into the narrow frame of U.S. asylum law (which is, in fact, U.S. implementation of our obligations under the International Refugee Convention).

As we were getting close to filing her application, Ann asked me to meet her in front the building where she was taking a class. I picked her up there once or twice, no problem, and we went to the library to work on her affidavit. But when I pulled up the next time, she was standing in front of the building holding her baby and looking nervous.  She made eye contact and shook her head.

“No,” she mouthed.  “Go.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man coming towards her. My overall impression was a fast-moving blur of anger and intimidation.  I looked away from Ann and hit the accelerator. I couldn’t speed off – I was a human rights lawyer working for a nonprofit and my old car had zero acceleration – so I could see from her expression that it would do more harm than good if I stopped and tried to help.

I still am a human rights lawyer working for a nonprofit and I still drive an old car with zero acceleration.  Every once in a while, when I look in the rearview mirror, I think of Ann and remember that day. The sight of him yelling at her, fist raised… this is the closest I have ever come to witnessing domestic violence and it is the closest that I ever hope to be.  I waited on pins and needles until she called me late that night after he fell asleep. He had beaten her again but she was still alive.

We filed her asylum application not long after. She testified truthfully and credibly at her interview about the persecution she suffered, how she tried to leave but he tracked her down in another country, and about her government’s unwillingness to protect her from harm. The Asylum Officer asked the question that many people unfamiliar with the power and control dynamics of domestic violence ask victims: “Why do you stay with him if he beats you?”

Her answer was simple.

“Because I have tried to leave and he always finds me and brings me back. Then the beatings get worse. I am afraid every day that he will kill me. Then what will happen to my children?”

The day Ann was granted asylum, she took the children and left to begin a new life in safety and dignity as an American.

Ann was not the first domestic violence victim granted asylum in the U.S. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, an increasing number of adjudicators granted asylum to individuals fleeing persecution by non-State actors that the government was unable or unwilling to control.  These were cases of individuals fleeing domestic violence, traditional harmful practices like FGM, and violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  In 2014, the federal Board of Immigration Appeals issued a precedential decision (Matter of A-R-C-G-) that people like Ann could be granted asylum based on persecution on account of a particular social group.

Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions has overturned that ruling and years of jurisprudence by announcing that victims of domestic violence and other persecution by private actors “generally” do not qualify for asylum. The attorney general announced his decision in Matter of A-B-, a case in which he invoked a rarely used power to personally intervene and certify to himself for reconsideration after the Board of Immigration Appeals reversed and remanded to the immigration judge with an order to grant asylum. The case concerns a woman from El Salvador who fled 15 years of sexual, physical, psychological and emotional violence that her government failed to protect her from.

What I would like my fellow Americans to know is this:

International law recognizes that asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection.

The international refugee protection system was set up as a result of the horrors of World War II, when Jewish refugees attempted to flee and were returned to Nazi death camps.

When people present themselves at the U.S. border and ask for asylum, they are not breaking the law. They are acting lawfully. They are following the process established by federal statute. They are exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum from persecution.

The attorney general is by fiat attempting to return U.S. asylum law to a time when domestic violence was seen as a “family matter.” This is only the latest salvo in the administration’s all-out war against refugees and asylum seekers. It is connected to the “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy and should be seen in that context.

From a global perspective, Sessions’ move is in line with efforts in Russia and other countries around the world to undermine protections against domestic violence. I recently traveled to Moldova to train women’s human rights defenders who have seen the rising tide of “family values” throughout Russia, former Soviet republics, and Eastern Europe, as laws are passed decriminalizing domestic violence.

My client Ann was granted asylum on the basis of her social group of women from her country who have experienced extreme sexual, physical and emotional domestic violence, (which the UN Committee against Torture recognizes as “torture”), who are unable to escape their abuser and who the government is unable or unwilling to protect. It was only due to the permanent legal status she gained through the U.S. asylum system that she was able to take her children and leave her abusive husband, and start a new life for her family as Americans.

Mr. Session’s attempt to unilaterally narrow the definition of who is eligible for asylum from persecution ignores existing U.S. law and jurisprudence.  Further, it violates international law and US treaty obligations. In interpreting the Refugee Convention, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has issued advisory opinions stating that domestic violence victims are potentially part of a social group. It turns back the clock to a time women fleeing gender-based persecution were not given refugee protection.

In my experience, when people have the chance to actually meet and get to know refugees and asylum seekers – and even other migrants who are coming for reasons of family reunification or work – they don’t say things like Mr. Sessions wrote in his opinion in Matter of A.B., “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

People who know asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence say things like, “She’s a really good person, just doing the best that she can for her family. She is trapped and has to get out of this violent situation. What can I do to help her?”

Before taking it upon himself personally to change well-established asylum law and practice, I really wish that Mr. Sessions could have met my client Ann. Or maybe even A.B. or others impacted by his decision.

By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

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“Zero-Tolerance” Policy, in Tearing Families Apart, is Inhumane and Illegal

As Father’s Day approaches, I keep thinking about one father in particular from Guatemala who is over 2,000 miles away from his 8-year-old daughter. Last week, that little girl told me about the day she was torn from her father’s arms at the border. In tears, they begged the Border Patrol officer to let them stay together.  Months later this little girl, now in the custody of a caregiver, cries herself to sleep, worries constantly about her family, and feels helpless.

I am an immigration attorney who helps people apply for asylum in the United States. But when this little girl came to me, it was to ask me how fast I could help her get deported so she could return to her family.

This is exactly what the Trump administration seeks to achieve in tearing apart families at the border and criminally prosecuting “100 percent” of undocumented border crossers. According to Attorney General Sessions’ recent comments, the intent is to deter asylum seekers from pursuing protections to which they are entitled under U.S. law.  This “zero-tolerance” policy not only is inhumane, it is illegal. U.S. law and international treaty obligations both guarantee the right to seek asylum.

Many of our nation’s founders came to this country seeking refuge, to worship their God and express their political beliefs without fear of repression by their government or society. In that spirit, Congress enacted a pathway to protection for those who could demonstrate that they faced persecution in their home country because of a fundamental aspect of their identity, such as their race, religion, ethnicity, political opinion, or other characteristics. Recognizing that many fleeing for their lives may be forced to leave home before they can obtain a visa, U.S. asylum law explicitly states that a person who “arrives” at our borders “whether or not at a designated a port of arrival … may apply for asylum.”

Asylum is not just a reflection of our nation’s most fundamental values—it is also a reflection of the priorities of the international community. The right to asylum was established in the late 1940’s following the Holocaust. The member states of the United Nations, with the explicit leadership of the United States, created formal protocols to protect refugees.

Given the rhetoric, it might surprise people to learn that asylum seekers face enormous legal obstacles to protection. The majority of claims are denied (even before Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned years of asylum case law for victims of domestic violence this week).

According to Sessions, the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy means that every undocumented border crosser will be criminally prosecuted and that parents bringing their children to the U.S. to protect them from death threats will be prosecuted for smuggling.

This “zero tolerance” violates the fundamental right, enshrined in international treaty and codified in our own U.S. law, to seek asylum from persecution. It violates the right to family integrity, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as a fundamental liberty interest. (See e.g. Supreme Court case Troxville v. Granville). It violates the right to due process of law.

To punish asylum seekers by taking away their children is exceptionally cruel. It’s also inefficient, creating duplication in a system already plagued by backlogs by requiring asylum seekers whose claims could otherwise by addressed together (parents and children) to present their factually identical claims in different immigration courts across the country.

Children like my bright little 8-year-old client, as well as their fathers and mothers, deserve our most zealous efforts to protect them from these cruel and illegal policies which purposefully deprive them of the right to seek and obtain asylum.  Many studies show that the majority of those presenting themselves at the Southern border have legitimate claims for humanitarian protection under international law.  Americans of all backgrounds must understand that these policies are not only inhumane, they are illegal.

As Father’s Day approaches, please stand with these families. For those whose ancestors came to the US as refugees, as asylum seekers, remember how your own family members made their journey to this country and the American welcome you would have wanted your family member to have.  Show our leaders that Americans believe that separating parents from their children at the border is illegal. Tell our leaders that you believe in the right to seek asylum.

Now is the time to come forward and stand in real solidarity with impacted immigrant communities. Please support organizations that represent these families and children on the border and when released, like The Advocates for Human Rights, the CARA Pro Bono Project  and the Migrant Center for Human Rights.  If you’re a legal professional or speak a second language, get involved with helping a child or family seeking asylum. Follow our blog for updates on advocating for separated families. Contact us and other local organizations that work with immigrants to learn how you can most effectively support your local immigrant communities in this time where their fundamental rights are under attack.

Alison Griffith is a Staff Attorney for The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee & Immigrant Program.

People are breaking U.S. immigration law at the border, but it’s not asylum seekers – it’s the U.S. government.

FeaturedPeople are breaking U.S. immigration law at the border, but it’s not asylum seekers – it’s the U.S. government.

The effects of the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy have been immediate and tragic. Just two months after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy for people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and a month after he made clear this would mean parents arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border would be prosecuted for illegal entry and their children taken away, story after story of separated families have appeared. Mr. Sessions also made clear that this zero-tolerance policy applies even to those seeking asylum.

So it’s no surprise that reports of U.S. border guards refusing to allow asylum seekers to make their claims continue to emerge.

People seeking asylum are following the law, not breaking it.

Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. This is the law – both under international law and federal statute. Recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and spelled out in the 1951 Refugee Convention , the United States made good on its commitment to the this principle in 1980 when the Refugee Act was signed into law.

This right ensures that people fleeing persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group have a chance to make their claim before being returned to death, torture, imprisonment, or other human rights violations.

The moral and human cost of ignoring this fundamental human right is high. Witness the voyage of the St. Louis in 1939, when U.S. immigration law’s restrictive immigration quotas resulted in the return of 532 passengers to continental Europe, 254 of whom died during the Holocaust.

U.S. border officials violate the law when they turn back asylum seekers without a hearing.

In the aftermath of World War II, the world community recognized that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.[1] That principle, known to refugee policy wonks as “non-refoulement,” is now a rule of customary international law.[2]

Refusing to allow people to make their asylum claims, as U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials reportedly did this week in El Paso, violates U.S. law and violates U.S. treaty obligations. These complaints are not new or isolated: last summer, for example, the American Immigration Council challenged CBP’s unlawful practice of turning away asylum seekers arriving in California. The case remains pending.

The administration’s efforts to prosecute of asylum seekers who appear at ports-of-entry and separate them from their children also violate international law. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani rebuked the U.S. in a June 5 statement:

“The current policy in the United States of separating ‘extremely young children’ from their asylum-seeker or migrant parents along the country’s southern border ‘always constitutes a child rights violation.’” [3]

A federal judge agrees that the administration’s practice may violate the U.S. Constitution. In a ruling earlier this week, the judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the ACLU challenging the practice.

While the administration claims it wants immigrants to “follow the law,” it seems blind to the fact that people who appear at ports-of-entry and claim asylum In addition to The Refugee Convention also prohibits the U.S. from imposing penalties on asylum seekers on account of their illegal entry or presence.[4] In order to deter asylum seekers from coming to the United States.

We need zero tolerance for human rights violations, not for people seeking asylum.

We need zero tolerance for public policy based on hate, racism, and xenophobia. While the administration’s new policies are ripping families apart and denying people their fundamental right to seek asylum, the policies have not slowed the arrival of people seeking protection. More than 50,000 people were arrested crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in May, the third month in a row with more than 50,000 arrests. A report by the Vera Institute of Justice released this week found no evidence that criminal prosecutions led to a decline in apprehensions along the Southwest border.

This is hardly surprising. People fleeing for their lives don’t consult presidential Twitter feeds or check Justice Department press releases. Like good parents everywhere, they go where they hope their children will be able to grow up in safety, protected by the rule of law and the principles of human rights.

[1] 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 33(1).

[2] Customary international law is

[3] While the United States stands alone among the world’s nations as the only country not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, international law is clear that the family is entitled to respect and protection. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, article 16(3), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, article 23(1), and American Convention on Human Rights, 1969, article 17(1) each state that ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State’.  European Social Charter, 1961, article 16, ‘With a view to ensuring the necessary conditions for the full development of the family, which is a fundamental unit of society, the Contracting Parties undertake to promote the economic, legal and social protection of family life ….’ African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, 1981, article 18(1) ‘The family shall be the natural unit and basis of society.  It shall be protected by the State which shall take care of its physical and moral health.’

[4] 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 31 (1).