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Volunteers Fight The Fight; Families Reunite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Alison Griffith, Staff Attorney for the Refugee and Immigration Program at The Advocates For Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director at The Advocates For Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.  

Bill Sets to Block President’s Immigration Action

Bill Sets to Block President’s Immigration Action

Stock Photo woman behind fenceToday the House of Representatives takes up H.R. 5759, the “Prevent Executive Amnesty Act.” Don’t feel bad if you’ve not heard of this bill. Introduced just two days ago, the bill bypassed any committee debate or discussion, going straight to the House floor today.

Introduced by Congressman Yoho (R-FL-3rd), the bill is an all-out attempt to outlaw President Obama’s November announcement that his administration will be allowing certain long-term but undocumented residents of the United States to register for deferred action.

The problems with Mr. Yoho’s bill, however, are myriad and illustrate the perils of bypassing the democratic process and commonsense in a rush to score political points.

Mr. Yoho’s bill seeks to block the administration from treating these long-term residents “as if they were lawfully present or had a lawful immigration status.” But the president’s November announcement does neither of these things. People who register for deferred action are not being granted a legal status. They are being put – for now – at the bottom of the priority list for deportations but like any alien – legal or not – they can be excluded or deported for any number of reasons. Contrary to the amnesty meme recirculating ad infinitum amongst opponents of the president’s action, they have not suddenly catapulted to the head of the line for immigration status. The president’s action leads at best to a life in limbo.

To accomplish his feat of blocking the president’s action, Mr. Yoho’s bill would to apply to any request for “exemption from, or deferral of, removal.” Mr. Yoho’s choice of words demonstrates the peril of wading into the marsh of immigration verbiage.

“Deferral of removal” is specifically authorized by regulation for persons who have been granted relief under the Convention Against Torture: 8 CFR 208.17. I think Mr. Yoho means “deferred action.” They’re different things. Deferred action has been used for decades to as “an act of administrative convenience to the government which gives some cases lower priority. 8 C.F.R. §274a.12(c)(14) (2011).

Mr. Yoho’s mistake illustrates two fundamental problems (although I’m sure there are others) with H.R. 5759. First, immigration laws are tricky. Draft in haste and repent at leisure.

Second, this wildly ill-informed bill has the potential to undermine protections which Congress has granted to survivors of torture, victims of persecution, crime victims, human trafficking victims, and others deserving of humanitarian protections.

Mr. Yoho appears to have a passing familiarity with these protections, given the exceptions he includes in H.R. 5759. His choice of language, however, seems to indicate that Mr. Yoho either doesn’t know what he’s doing or, worse, that he seeks deprive victims of trafficking and others of the means of earning a living or remaining lawfully in the United States while the often lengthy process by which they can be registered as lawful permanent residents.

Mr. Yoho also would exempt from his bill those aliens who are at “imminent risk of serious bodily harm or death.” Again, this seems to be either a clumsy attempt to allow people whose applications for asylum are pending or who have been granted withholding of removal under section 241(b)(3) of the Immigration and Nationality Act – a technical provision that, while similar to a grant of asylum, leaves an individual in the somewhat awkward position of having been found to face persecution of deported but who, often for technical reasons does will never be eligible to file for lawful permanent residency or, ultimately, to become a U.S. citizen. If that is indeed Mr. Yoho’s intent, his close-but-not-quite language in the proposed bill misses the mark and would fail to ensure that everyone allowed by statute to remain in the United States following a finding by an immigration judge that they have a clear probability of persecution is able to work. The absurd, counterproductive, and cruel result would be to render people who, pursuant to our obligations under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the United States will not deport and who will remain indefinitely in the United States can never work.

Unlike the picture Mr. Yoho wishes to paint, where aliens in the United States can neatly and easily be categorized as “legal” or “illegal,” good public policy considers more than political labelling. It takes into account that people who come to this country in search of freedom often wait years for a decision to be reached on their claims for protection. Would Mr. Yoho’s bill render these asylum seekers unable to work to support themselves during years of government delays – delays often resulting from severe and chronic under-investment in our immigration courts? They are, after all, without immigration status. Would people on Temporary Protected Status, specifically authorized by statute at sec. 244 of the INA, no longer be eligible to work while remaining in the US during periods of natural disaster or civil strife? Such a result would mean terrible hardship for extremely vulnerable individuals and undermine our protection system. Keep in mind that none of these individuals is eligible for public benefits.

Member of Congress who vote in support of H.R. 5759 should ask themselves whether scoring a political point warrants the risk of tearing asunder the shreds of stability America’s most vulnerable migrants now have while they seek humanitarian protection.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, attorney and The Advocates for Human Rights’ Advocacy Program