It’s a human right: Each of us has the right to fundamental safety & security.

Latino mother and chlid RGB

The Advocates for Human Rights mourns the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case of United States v. Texas, which has blocked President Obama’s executive actions on immigration for nearly two years and put the lives of an estimated 5 million people and their families on hold.

International human rights standards recognize that the United States, like all nations, has the right to control its borders.

But that right is not without limits. The United States also has the obligation to ensure that every person within our borders enjoys the fundamental rights that lead to a life with dignity.

For the millions of undocumented Americans, those most basic rights are denied every day because they lack immigration status. Families are separated. Support for basic needs is denied. Fear of arrest and deportation is exploited.

The fight for administrative relief has been a painful one. Millions of families have deferred their hopes of living a stable and predictable existence, if only for a brief time, while the case wound its way through the courts. Families have been irreparably torn apart by deportations, leaving hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizen children behind.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Central American refugees have been put at risk by an administration determined to deter them from seeking safety by detaining them upon arrival and prioritizing them for deportation. These wounds can heal, but they will never be erased.

At the same time, this struggle has been a turning point for the movement, which has floundered since 1996 to read the political tea leaves and calibrate the compromises needed to pass “reform” bills that would reinforce, rather than reverse, the fundamental injustices embedded in the current system. Increasingly advocates, activists, and those affected by decades of injustice have united behind a powerful new vision.

One America’s Rich Stolz recently wrote in the Huffington Post that the President Obama’s program would allow undocumented Americans to “gain the dignity of knowing that they have place in America.

National Immigration Law Center’s Marielena Hincapié, whose team has been leading the fight in U.S. v. Texas, tweeted recently, “We believe in a world in which all people can live with dignity.”

That vision is one of human rights. It takes as its starting point a recognition that each of us has the right to fundamental safety and security of the person – including a roof over our heads, food to eat, and health care when we need it. It also means freedom from arbitrary detention, a fair day in court, and the protection of the unity of the family. It recognizes these rights for every person without discrimination and it demands that failure to protect these rights be addressed.

Today, while we mourn the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, we do so knowing that our vision is clear – that everyone, regardless of where they were born, has the right to enjoy the fundamental building blocks needed to live with dignity.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ Director of Advocacy and an experienced immigration attorney.

Where punk and the law meet: helping asylum seekers and immigrants

John Barham's involvement in the punk scene stems from the same roots that let him to practice socially productive law.
John Barham’s involvement in the punk scene stems from the same roots that led him to practice socially productive law.

John Barham wears no shoes in his office; he practices law in his socks. On a recent Wednesday evening, his socks were dark gray wool, soft-looking. Beneath his desk one foot occasionally rubbed the other, two cats playing. He said the areas of law he specializes in — criminal defense and immigration — are designed, it sometimes seems, to be especially confusing and pernicious, instruments that disempower as much as they protect. “It’s more like magic than anything else,” he said. “There’s all these tricks you need to know.” And so, as best he can, and often for no money, Barham helps protect his clients from (misapplications of) the law. When he is not working as an attorney he is volunteering as an attorney — for the Black Lives Matter movement, for The Advocates for Human Rights.

This week, in his volunteer work with The Advocates, Barham won asylum for a 13-year-old who fled to the U.S. alone to escape violence in Central America. And on Friday he and his punk band, Murrieta, will take part in a benefit he organized; proceeds will go to The Advocates’ Refuge and Immigrant Program.

Barham is in his late 30s, bald, bespectacled, friendly, and, at least at the end of the day, a touch tired. He speaks quickly and with the trace of a southern accent (politics becomes pawlitics.) The clutter of his office, at the intersection of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue, is a homey clutter. The law in this office is not so intimidating as in other law offices, not quite so infallible-seeming, not quite so buttoned-up. It follows that there are no buttons on Barham’s shirt. In addition to his socks, he does his lawyering in a T-shirt. It is red and bears the Sriracha hot sauce logo — a rooster — and covers his belly, just.

‘A music of resistance’
And then, in the evenings, when he is performing with Murrieta, Barham wears no shirt at all. Videos on YouTube show him plodding on stages in dark rooms, bare-chested, a microphone in hand. The music is guitar-heavy, drum-heavy, and loud — but it is also inviting. The music is loud because, in part, the music is a cry, a cri de coeur — it is political. Punk, says Barham, “is a music of resistance, a subversive music, analogous to hip-hop … the scene does well where there are lots of immigrants. It tends to flourish in places where immigrants are dealing with abuse or hostility. … Even just in the punk scene here [in Minneapolis] there are a lot of Latino immigrants, as well as immigrants from other parts of the world. And to a large extent that’s who we’re playing for.”

His involvement in the punk scene stems, Barham says, from the same roots that led him to practice socially productive law; in some respects when he is practicing law he is practicing punk, and vice versa; when playing punk, he is performing social outreach. (The group takes its name from Joaquin Murrieta, a sort of Latino-American Robin Hood, who during the gold rush looted rich and unscrupulous prospectors and then distributed the purloined funds among the poor.)

Barham grew up in South Carolina in the late ‘70s. Half his family was Vietnamese. This entailed violence. “Racism as an issue was very clear to me before I was in kindergarten,” he says. “My childhood was fist-fighting most of my neighborhood over them wanting to kill my cousins and brothers and sisters because of where they were from. That remained a troubling thing for really the rest of my life.” After graduating from college he spent more than a decade living in South America. In Argentina he spent two years as a social worker for a human rights group, providing aid to children who lived in train stations. In Chile, in addition to working as an English teacher and translator, he and his crew provided de-facto security to the country’s gay rights movement.

While in South America, he met the woman who would become his wife (and, later, his ex-wife). She had a son, and they decided to raise him in the States. Barham enrolled in law school in eastern Tennessee. “Law school was the worst part of my life, by far,” he says. “The racism and xenophobia faced by my ex-wife and son there were just tremendous. And it was the first environment I’d been in where greed was explicitly OK. We left the first day we could, and drove right here.”

Minnesota: a kind of oasis
Minnesota, he says, “and the Twin Cities in particular, is kind of an oasis in the United States in terms of tolerance and acceptance and diversity.” He notes the imperfections — “I feel like every time I pick up the newspaper or see the news there’s something new about a Somalian person being insulted or injured,” he said; he began volunteering for Black Lives Matter after several of their supporters were shot. But he maintains that, in his experience, it ranks among the most inclusive of American cities that he has lived in.

On Friday (Jan. 29) at The Hexagon Bar in Minneapolis, Murrieta will play a concert to raise funds for those in need of legal representation but who cannot afford it; proceeds from the show, which Barham organized and which features a multitude local punk, hip-hop, and reggae acts, will be donated to The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee & Immigrant Program — a program that offers free counsel to low-income immigrants and refugees who face persecution in their home countries. It can with justification be said that Murrieta will be carrying on the legacy of its namesake.

By: Max Ross, a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights.

“Where punk and the law meet: helping asylum seekers and immigrants” was published on MinnPost, January 28, 2016.

Meet Sarah Brenes: She’s a Zealous Advocate

Sarah Brenes for Website

Her clients’ courage and perseverance serve as a touchstone for Sarah Brenes (right) in her work to secure safety for people escaping violence and persecution. Brenes was recently appointed director of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program, filling the big shoes left by Deepinder Mayell when he left The Advocates to accept a position with the University of Minnesota Law School’s Center for New Americans.

What do you look forward to the most about being the director of the Refugee & Immigrant Program?
I look forward to continuing to work with our amazing team of staff, interns, and volunteers that support The Advocates’ work. We continue to explore opportunities to support asylum seekers nationwide, and I look forward to fusing more connections with partners across the country and within our midwest region.

What do you want to see accomplished?
With the help of dedicated volunteer attorneys and interpreters, we will continue our work of providing free legal services to low-income asylum seekers.

The Advocates has more than 30 years of experience serving asylum seekers. There are hundreds of former clients who have gone on to contribute to our communities and woven themselves into the rich fabric of our nation. I hope to call on them to provide insights and perspectives of their experiences to help inform our work and to share their thoughts with current clients just beginning the process.

I want to continue to expand our training and support opportunities, particularly for attorneys working as part of our service area in greater Minnesota, North Dakota,  and South Dakota. I would also like to deepen our connection with national partners as we continue to explore our ability to support asylum seekers nationwide.

What is the most rewarding part about working with refugees on their asylum cases?
I am humbled by the courage and perseverance of our clients. In order to make their way to the United States, most have to part with family, risk their lives, and travel with the hope that remains despite suffering abuse and torture. Seeing a client after a case is granted is akin to meeting a totally new person — a weight has been lifted and a new chapter is beginning for them.

What is your background with immigration law?
I am honored to have worked with non-profits, educational institutions, and private attorneys during my career in immigration law. I started, right out of college, as a summer paralegal with the Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, staffing a small office servicing migrant farm workers. I then went to work as a paralegal for Richard Breitman, a private immigration attorney who taught me what it means to be a zealous advocate.

I completed a masters program in human rights and peace education at the National University in Costa Rica. Frustrated by the barriers 9/11 brought to immigration law, I studied global migration and human rights issues. Then, I went to law school and clerked with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and Centro Legal, serving low-income clients. I also had the opportunity to participate in a number of projects at The Advocates for Human Rights.

I joined the University of St. Thomas Immigration Practice Group of the Legal Services Clinic, working alongside Professor Virgil Wiebe, who has the unique ability to help students see the importance of even the smallest detail in a case while, at the same time, appreciate how one client’s case fits in the broader fabric of our nation’s immigrant history.

When my fellowship ended, I joined The Advocates as a staff attorney. Together, we provide momentum to the human rights movement. I am constantly inspired by the volunteers who keep the movement propelling forward—one case, one issue at a time.

Tell us about your family.
My husband, Elvis, and I live in Minneapolis with our three children, Diego (9), Cecilia (6), and Santiago (18 months). Our children’s innocence, curiosity, and early exploration of rights and justice constantly keep me aware of the importance of our work and provide me with new perspectives. My family keeps me balanced  and supports me in efforts to secure protection for our clients and their own families.

Here’s what to understand about refugee law & policy

Syrian Refugees Enes Reyhan via Flickr.jpg

I’ve been working as an attorney, primarily in immigration for 12 years. The overwhelming majority of the cases I handled have been asylum cases. I’ve taught a law school clinical practicum for eight years. I’ve spoken and trained attorneys and non-attorneys about asylum law and immigration, nationally and locally. I know the law and I know the process well.

Asylum, for those who aren’t familiar, is based on the same legal definition as “refugee.” The difference is just in where someone is located when they apply for protection from harm.

Here’s what you should understand about refugee law and policy. It will help you better evaluate the statements being made by many others, and it will hopefully help you form a more informed opinion.

First, what does it even mean to be a refugee? Under U.S. law (8 USC 1101(a)(42)), we use this definition (I’m going to paraphrase a little for ease of reading): Someone who is outside of their country of nationality, and who is unable or unwilling to return or get protection from their own government because of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

A refugee must be outside his or her country of origin and outside the United States to seek “refugee” status. They go through an application process, which involves in-person interviews and extensive background checks. This includes full fingerprints, INTERPOL checks, name checks, and cross-referencing a lot of government databases. The United States must approve them before they can set foot in this country. The approval process, before someone can be admitted to the United States, routinely takes between 12-24 months, and sometimes longer.

There is no “right” to refugee status. Individuals can be denied for any reason. Common reasons for denial are not meeting the legal definition of refugee or having inconsistencies in the person’s story.

Refugees must meet eligibility guidelines to enter the United States. These include not being “inadmissible.” There are a lot of reasons you can be deemed inadmissible. For a little “light” reading, check out 8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(3). It explains all of the “Security and Related Grounds” of inadmissibility. Having spent years appearing in Immigration Court and working with and against the good people at Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement – trust me, they are not erring on the side of admitting people who might be a danger.

The “material support” provision excludes not just people who’ve associated with “known” terrorist groups. It excludes anyone who we have “reasonable ground to believe” is likely to engage in terrorism or terrorist-type activities. This section of law is incredibly broad and permissive in favor of the government to exclude potential refugees and immigrants. Terrorist groups can include any group of “two or more individuals.” The list of activities that can get you barred is long. Really, just go read the statute if you aren’t sure.

The number of refugee admissions statutorily allowed by congress is pretty small – for FY 2015 that number was capped at 70,000 as it has been for years. It’s only recently that we’ve even come close to filling that capacity. Often we’re below it.

We cannot predict the future. Someone may, after being admitted as a refugee, do something terrible. So might someone who is a U.S. citizen, as we have witnessed many times. Emily Good

By: Emily Good, an attorney  working as the Legal Projects Manager for Minnesota Legal Services State Support. She was formerly a staff attorney and director for The Advocates for Human Rights Refugee & Immigrant Program.

Credit for Syrian refugees’ photo:
Enes Reyhan via Flickr

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If you have questions about how the legal immigration system works, post them below. We’ll do our best to answer or ask someone who might know.

End the inhumane detention of refugee women and children

Child from HondurasDuring National Week of Action, open your eyes to U.S. horrors

As families across Minnesota prepare for the delights and frights of Halloween, a separate, hidden, and chilling reality exists in Texas, where more than 2,000 immigrant mothers and children are in for-profit detention facilities because they dared to flee to America to escape the horrific gang and domestic violence plaguing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The children in these facilities aren’t deciding whether they want to be Sofia the First or Captain America for Halloween. They are wondering whether they will be in jail for another week or forever.

This does not need to be their reality for much longer. In a class action lawsuit filed earlier this year, California Federal Court Judge Dolly Gee ordered family detention to end. This lawsuit was filed and succeeded because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had failed to provide basic human necessities, such as adequate food, drinking water, medical care, and appropriate facilities to immigrant children in detention.

Judge Gee’s order states that: 1) children can no longer be held in unlicensed facilities and must be given access to adequate food, drinking water, and proper medical care, and importantly, 2) since ICE has been holding immigrant children in sub-standard conditions since June 2014, all immigrant children―with their mothers―must be released from detention and the lock-up facilities must be shut down by October 23, 2015.

It is shocking that the simple proposition that innocent children do not belong in jail has resulted in such a pitched battle in federal court, but it has. Furthermore, there are signs that the government has the appetite for further litigation, as the Department of Homeland Security has stated that it intends to appeal Judge Gee’s decision.

This week is National Week of Action to #EndFamilyDetention, designed to call attention to the human rights abuses the U.S. government is inflicting upon children and their mothers. Events like the one held yesterday at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis—grown from grass roots efforts of local attorneys and advocates―are being held in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Antonio, and throughout the country.

Local immigration attorneys have visited these family detention facilities to provide desperately needed legal representation to mothers and their children who are young and scared. Most of the mothers have experienced sexual violence, extortion, and death threats. They have seen their family members murdered before their eyes. A significant number of the children have the same sad history. About 90 percent of the families have been found to have a credible fear of returning to their country, the first step in qualifying for asylum in the United States.

The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit based in Minneapolis, has launched the National Asylum Help Line to connect Central American families released from detention and seeking asylum with free immigration legal services near them so they can have a fair day in court and a chance to live in safety.

Asylum seekers should be treated like human beings when they come to our country, and until recently, they often were. Before June 2014, these mothers and children most likely would have been identified and then immediately released to family in the United States. They would have received a court date to appear in immigration court to present their case for asylum. Many would have hired an immigration attorney or found a nonprofit organization to represent them in their cases. Orderly, painless, inexpensive.

By contrast, we now have a system that increases the pain all around. Mothers and children are detained indefinitely in a remote location where legal access is barely available and family visitation virtually impossible. Families are jailed in for-profit detention facilities that value profits over providing a basic level of care to children. And all of this costs taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars.

It is beyond inhumane, beyond ridiculous. It is an outrage.

As immigration attorneys, we believe and know that refugees, including the youngest and most vulnerable, have the right to seek asylum, a right that is protected under international law as well as United States laws. But how do we treat these refugees in America, the land of the free? We jail them.

To those who would argue that these women and children are breaking the law by “entering illegally,” it is important to understand that these individuals are presenting themselves to border patrol and claiming a fear of return—as they have the legal right to do―because they are afraid they will be killed if they go home. This most basic of human rights ensures that those who flee persecution have a chance to be heard before being deported to torture or death. By violating our internal and international obligations to process the cases of these asylum seekers in a humane and orderly fashion, we are the ones who are the true lawbreakers.

We hope that as more Americans understand the horrors these refugee mothers and children escaped, as more Americans learn that these vulnerable families are being held in deplorable conditions in for-profit jails run by the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, as more Americans find out how expensive it is to perpetuate this ill-conceived system of misery, they will agree with Judge Gee, and hopefully, family immigration detention will end.

By: Twin Cities’ immigration attorneys Kara Lynum and Michelle Rivero, and The Advocates for Human Rights.

Note: This blog post was published in the Star Tribune‘s editorial section on October 22, 2015.

Pledges & Punts at the UN: The U.S. Government Responds to UPR Recommendations

blog_un

Today marks the formal end of the U.S. government’s second Universal Periodic Review of its human rights record at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But on many important issues, it’s really just the beginning of many years of work to implement the United States’ human rights obligations.

During the interactive dialogue part of the UPR in May 2015, the U.S. government received 343 recommendations from countries around the world. Today the government formally responded to each of them, stating whether it accepted, accepted in part, or noted (diplomatic UN-speak for “rejected”) each one. At the Human Rights Council in Geneva this morning, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby acknowledged that the United States hasn’t “been perfect in our efforts, and we still have many challenges.”

The Advocates for Human Rights has been engaging in advocacy throughout the UPR process, lobbying on the death penalty, immigration detention, and the rights of non-citizens. We submitted stakeholder reports on those issues back in September 2014, and we traveled to Geneva in March to lobby delegates to the Human Rights Council to encourage them to raise our issues in the interactive dialogue.

Those lobbying efforts were successful. For example, 45 countries presented recommendations to the United States on the death penalty, and 23 offered recommendations on the rights of non-citizens. The Advocates lobbied nearly every country that made recommendations on those issues.

Here are some highlights from those 343 recommendations, and the U.S. government’s responses:

Death penalty

Transparency on lethal injection drugs

Some of the U.S. government’s responses were discouraging. Knowing that the government was not likely commit to abolishing the death penalty, The Advocates lobbied France and many other countries to highlight the issue of state laws and practices that keep secret the identity and sources of drugs used in lethal injections. Transparency regarding the types of drugs used and the sources of those drugs is increasingly important in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross, which places additional evidentiary burdens on individuals seeking to challenge the proposed method of their execution as a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

During the interactive dialogue in May, France took up our issue, recommending that the U.S. government “[c]ommit to full transparency on the combination of medicines used during executions by injection.” Today, however, the U.S. government formally “noted” that recommendation, providing no explanation other than its position that the death penalty comports with our country’s human rights obligations.

Moratorium

In explaining the government’s decision to reject calls from 37 countries around the world to abolish–or at least consider a moratorium on–the death penalty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Busby told the Human Rights Council:

I’d also note that we received numerous recommendations–including from Ecuador, Austria, Lithuania, Congo, Nepal, and many others–concerning our administration of capital punishment. Domestic civil society also raised capital punishment as an issue of concern. While we did not support the majority of the recommendations on this topic, we respect those who made them. Our continuing differences in this are a matter of policy, and not what the rules of international human rights law currently require.

Racial bias and wrongful convictions

The U.S. government made some important pledges concerning the death penalty today. For example, we lobbied Angola and Poland about racial bias in the administration of the death penalty and about wrongful convictions. The government accepted these recommendations:

  • Angola: Identify the root causes of ethnic disparities concerning especially those sentenced to capital punishment in order to find ways [to] eliminate ethnic discrimination in the criminal justice system.
  • France: Identify the factors of racial disparity in the use of the death penalty and develop strategies to end possible discriminatory practices.
  • Poland: Strengthen safeguards against wrongful sentencing to death and subsequent wrongful execution by ensuring, inter alia, effective legal representation for defendants in death penalty cases, including at the post-conviction stage.

We also lobbied on the issue of compensation for victims of wrongful convictions. The U.S. government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Belgium to “[t]ake measures in follow-up to the recommendations of the Human Rights Committee to the US in 2014 with regards to capital punishment such as measures to avoid racial bias, to avoid wrongful sentencing to death and to provide adequate compensation if wrongful sentencing happens.” In its formal response, the government stated that it “support[s] consideration of these recommendations, noting that we may not agree with all of them.”

Immigrant detention

The U.S. government made several pledges on the detention of migrants, accepting a recommendation from Brazil to “[c]onsider alternatives to the detention of migrants, particularly children.” The government accepted, in part, a recommendation from Sweden to “[h]alt the detention of immigrant families and children, seek alternatives to detention and end the use of detention for reason of deterrence.” In its response, the government punted on the controversial use of immigrant detention to deter future migrants, but added that it is “working to shorten detention families may face while their immigration proceedings are resolved.”

One issue we lobbied on was the lack of due process in immigration removal proceedings. Honduras was particularly receptive to these issues, recommending that the United States “[e]nsure due process for all immigrants in immigration proceedings, using the principle of the best interest, especially in the case of families and unaccompanied children.”

Honduras is one of the main countries of origin for the unaccompanied children and families coming to the United States to seek asylum, so it was rewarding to see that government’s interest in the plight of its nationals.

In responding to Honduras’ recommendation, however, the U.S. government glossed over its international human rights obligation to ensure due process, instead asserting that “[n]oncitizens in the U.S. facing removal receive significant procedural protections.”

On the issue of the rights of children in immigration proceedings, the government ignored the fact that unaccompanied children have no right to a government-provided attorney, offering merely that “[t]he best interest of a child is one factor in determinations by immigration judges. [The Department of Health and Human Services] provides care and placement for children who enter the U.S. without an adult guardian, considering the best interests of the child in all placement decisions.”

Rights of migrants

Our lobbying and advocacy on the rights of migrants highlighted many of the findings in The Advocates’ groundbreaking report, Moving from Exclusion to Belonging: Immigrant Rights in Minnesota Today. One of the issues we highlighted was discrimination against and profiling of non-citizens. Iran, Mexico, and Nicaragua called for an end to discrimination and violence against migrants and non-citizens, among other targeted groups. In partially accepting these recommendations, however, the U.S. government glossed over migrants, describing efforts “to counter intolerance, violence, and discrimination against members of all minority groups, including African-Americans, Muslims, Arabs, and indigenous persons.”

Another issue we highlighted is excessive use of force by officials on our country’s southern border. Mexico called on the United States to “[i]nvestigate cases of deaths of migrants by customs and border patrols, particularly those where there have been indications of an excessive use of force, and ensure accountability and adequate reparation to the families of the victims.” The government accepted the recommendation in part, adding that it “cannot support parts of this recommendation concerning reparations.”

The U.S. government expressed its support for recommendations to “[r]eview in depth migration policy” (Congo), to “[f]urther improve the rights of immigrants” (Senegal), to give “special attention . . . to protecting migrant workers from exploitative working conditions, specifically in the agricultural sector” (Portugal), and to “[e]nsure the rights of migrant workers, especially in the sector of agriculture where the use of child laborers is a common practice” (Holy See).

But in responding to Algeria’s call to “[t]ake necessary measures to combat discriminatory practices against . . . migrant workers in the labor market,” the U.S. government ignored the obstacles immigrant workers face in combating discrimination. As we explained in our stakeholder report,

“immigrants who experience discrimination often do not complain, either because they are unaware of their rights under the law, because it is easier to leave the employer than to pursue a complaint, or, for undocumented workers, because fear of deportation keeps them silent.”

The U.S. government, in responding to Algeria’s recommendation, ignored these complexities, stating simply that “U.S. federal labor and employment laws generally apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status.”

What’s next?

The U.S. government may be breathing a sigh of relief that the UPR is finally over, but The Advocates and other members of civil society know that today is just the beginning. Now we begin the process of working with the government to implement the recommendations the government accepted. And we haven’t lost hope for those “noted” recommendations–surprisingly, research shows that governments often implement, at least in part, UPR recommendations that they formally reject.

To learn more about the Universal Periodic Review process, read the chapter on Advocacy at the United Nations in The Advocates for Human Rights’ 2015 toolkit, Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-Finding, Documentation, and Advocacy.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

Migration Not Border Security Problem; People Like Us Face Perilous Choices

Photo credit: ALJAZEERA AMERICA
Photo credit: ALJAZEERA AMERICA

The capsize of a ship overloaded with migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean has galvanized attention on what The New York Times characterizes as a surge in refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa. With, as The Times reports, “about 17 times as many refugee deaths in the Mediterranean Sea from January to April compared to the same period last year,” the human tragedy unfolding is shocking, particularly to those of us who have never faced such a perilous choice.

But while calls for a naval blockade continue to be heard, a more nuanced take on Fortress Europe and the obligation to consider human dignity have surfaced. Pope Francis, who last year urged European leaders not to allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery, reminded those gathered for his weekly address that the migrants whose boat had foundered are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war.

Even European leaders who according to NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli have long been “pressed by anti-immigrant parties… are now facing a backlash for having neglected the humanitarian disaster taking place in the waters of the Mediterranean.” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi struck a new note when he said: “We are asking not to be left alone. Our political priority is not just a security issue. We want to ensure the dignity of human beings and block human traffickers. The new slave traders of the 21st century must not believe that Europe considers this one of the least important issues on its agenda.”

The recognition that migration is more than a border security issue is one the United States needs to take seriously.

Several weeks ago NPR’s Steve Inskeep had a rather horrifying exchange with Simon Henshaw, the U.S. State Department deputy secretary charged with explaining how the United States’ is fulfilling its international refugee protection obligations despite its multifaceted deterrence strategy through a recently-opened process for Honduran children whose parents are permanent residents to enter the U.S. more quickly than the normal visa backlog allows:

INSKEEP: Does it bother you, though, that there may be a young person who asks
for help and then has to go away from a U.S. consulate and go back into the neighbor-
hood where their lives have been threatened?

HENSHAW: Yes, it does. But what really bothers me is the thought that that child
might take a risky journey through Mexico and come to the United States. So what
I want to do is make sure that our program addresses their situation as fast as possible.”

Yes, Mr. Henshaw, La Bestia is dangerous. But even more dangerous is abandoning the fundamental right to non-refoulement – to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.

Last December NPR’s Robert Siegal summed up the Obama Administration’s official word: “if you, a child in Central America, try to come up North, you’ll be put in detention; you’ll be sent back; you’ll be flown back home.”

In a report released this month, Detention Watch Network traced the role of deterrence strategies in U.S. immigration policy, noting that the Obama administration’s “recent reliance on the deterrence justification to rationalize the long-term detention of asylum-seeking families marks a new level of aggressive and inappropriate use.”

The human rights violations endured by asylum-seeking families are numerous. Included in the (very long) list of violations flagged by The Advocates for Human Rights and Detention Watch Network in a joint submission to the UN last year was the growing use of detention to deter asylum seekers from seeking protection in direct contravention of international obligations.[1] We pointed to Central American mothers and children seeking asylum being subject to arbitrary detention in a stated effort by the United States to deter asylum seekers from coming to the United States.[2]

Detention and deportation to deter people from seeking asylum from persecution (in direct contravention of this fundamental human right) is not the only tactic being used by the United States. The Los Angeles Times reports that “under U.S. pressure, Mexico for the first time in many years has launched a wide crackdown on the migrants. More than 60,000 have been deported this year, as many as half in recent months, the government says.” Also on the deterrence menu: increased train speeds.

While the United States’ deterrence strategies violate international law by abrogating the right to seek asylum, the European Union’s shift toward targeting the traffickers is little better. As commentator Kenan Malik writes, replacing the border security narrative with a narrative of criminality is not the answer:

The traffickers are certainly odious figures, recklessly placing migrants in peril.
But what pushes migrants into the hands of traffickers are the European Union’s
own policies. The bloc’s approach to immigration has been to treat it as a matter
not of human need, but of criminality. It has developed a three-pronged strategy
of militarizing border controls, criminalizing migration and outsourcing controls.”

What, then, is the answer? Perhaps an immigration policy that includes the words “ensure human dignity” is a start.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ director of advocacy.