Serious Concerns About Lack of Access to Counsel for Asylum Seekers

Child from Honduras

U.S. Senator Al Franken has called on Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to ensure access to counsel for asylum seekers held in family detention centers. Joined by 18 Senate colleagues, Sen. Franken raises serious concerns regarding reports that U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is interfering with the ability of asylum-seeking mothers and children to access legal representation. Recently, individual volunteer attorneys, who had travelled to the privately-owned prison in Dilley, Texas where approximately 2000 Central American refugee women and children are detained,were barred from entering to provide  pro bono representation.

Access to counsel can be the difference between life and death for asylum seekers in the United States. Asylum seekers who have lawyers are more than three times as likely to be granted asylum as those who do not.  Having an attorney is “the single most important factor” affecting the outcome of the case. Yet individuals in immigration detention face the biggest challenge in obtaining legal representation.  The American Bar Association estimates that a whopping 84% of immigration detainees nationwide were unrepresented in their removal proceedings.

At the international level, The Advocates for Human Rights drew attention to the appalling lack of access to counsel for asylum seekers during the UN reviews for U.S. compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, and the Convention Against Torture.  Most recently, The Advocates raised the continuing failure of the U.S. to recognize asylum seekers from Central America’s northern triangle in its statement to the UN Human Rights Council during a September 28 interactive dialogue on the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights:

As an NGO that provides free legal services to asylum seekers in the United States, we would particularly like to draw attention to an issue that we see on a daily basis: the impact that violent transnational criminal gangs in Central America, fueled by profits from the trade in illegal drugs, have on the lives Central Americans, forcing thousands of women and children to flee and seek safety in the U.S.

Transnational gangs extort, threaten, and forcibly recruit people living in strategic drug trafficking corridors. States in the region are ill-equipped to deal with crimes by these gangs, leaving victims unprotected from serious harm, including torture, disappearance, sexual violence, and murder. And the violence continues to grow, as gangs seek to solidify their control over valuable drug trafficking routes.

For example, gang members threatened to kill one of our clients, who I’ll call “Teresa”, after her family could no longer afford to pay protection money for the family business. Armed gang members abducted her, threw her into a truck, and took her to the leader’s house, where he beat and raped her. Left with no choice but to flee, she sought asylum in the U.S.

Yet the U.S. violates the fundamental rights of asylum seekers like Teresa by failing to recognize victims of transnational criminal gangs as refugees, even when such gangs operate as quasi-state actors that routinely torture, rape, and kill those who resist support or recruitment.

Asylum seekers face other violations, including arbitrary detention and prosecution for illegal entry. Mothers and their children are detained in difficult conditions pending preliminary credible fear determinations in two privately-owned prisons where attorneys have been denied access to clients and even summarily barred from the facilities.

The Advocates for Human Rights calls upon:

  • the Human Rights Council to include this issue in the discussion about the impact of the world drug problem on human rights;

  • the United Nations member States to ensure that their national drug policies consider the impact on the human rights of affected individuals and their countries; and

  • the U.S. to end family immigration detention and expedited removal procedures and to treat all asylum seekers in accordance with international standards.

See The Advocates’ volunteer Dr. Bill Lohman deliver the oral statement to the Human Rights Council:

In July, The Advocates launched a bilingual National Asylum Help Line to connect families released from U.S. immigration detention centers like the one in Dilley with free legal services. Migrants are encouraged to call the Help Line at 612-746-4674 to receive basic legal screening, information about the legal process, and referrals to agencies in areas in which they live.

By Michele Garnett MacKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ Director of Advocacy, and Deputy Director Jennifer Prestholdt

Originally published at theadvocatespost.org on October 29, 2015.

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Honoring The Defenders

I wrote this post for Bloggers Unite.

On Human Rights Day 2011, we pay tribute to all human rights defenders.  What is a human rights defender?  The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders describes them as people who act to address any human right (or rights) issue, anywhere in the world, on behalf of individuals or groups.  Human rights defenders can be individuals acting in their professional capacity or volunteering their time to work with an association or group.  If you add it all up, there are thousands – maybe millions – of human rights defenders in the world.  Each of us that takes action to promote and protect human rights is a defender.

As a human rights defender working in the United States, I have the freedom to work without fear of reprisal. For many defenders around the world, however, this is not the case.  Because of they act for human rights, human rights defenders are often targeted for human rights violations, including executions, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrest, trial without due process, detention, death threats, harassment and discrimination.  They face restrictions on their freedom of movement, expression, association, and assembly. In addition to targeting human rights defenders themselves and the organizations through which they work, the human rights violations frequently target members of defenders’ families.   Women human rights defenders confront risks that are gender specific.

What happens to human rights defenders when the targeting gets to be too much? For more than seven years, I represented human rights defenders who were fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the U.S.   Though I may not have seen them for years, I often think about my former clients.  On this Human Rights Day, I am thinking about James and Julia (not their real names). James and Julia were human rights defenders in their native Kenya, speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a little boy who I’ll call William.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog had bitten William on the head.  You could still see the wound a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.

In police custody, Julia had been brutally and repeatedly raped.  Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears.  It is one of the very  few times that have I seen an asylum officer (specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview) actually cry during an an asylum interview.  I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.

Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them.  In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school  William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had had another child, too – a daughter born here in America.

The ending is not always this happy for all human rights defenders.  That is why, this Human Rights Day, we all need to honor the work of human rights defenders and promote human rights both at home and in other countries.  One way to honor the work of the defenders is to be a defender yourself – take action.  The UN is asking you to Make a wish for human rights today!

To learn more about protecting human rights defenders:

http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/SRHRDefendersIndex.aspx

http://www.protectionline.org/-Home-.html

http://www.fidh.org/-Human-Rights-Defenders,180-

You Really Can’t Make This Stuff Up – Part II

In our office, we have a mantra: “You have to laugh or else you would cry.”   Maybe working in the field of human rights exposes us to more situations where crazy and ridiculous things happen, but my hunch is – probably not.  All you have to do is read the newspaper (how about that woman who tried to mail a puppy?) or watch an episode of  “The Office” to come to a different conclusion.  The common element here is that we are all humans.  We can all be petty and mean and make a big deal about things that seem to be critically important to us at the time, but which, in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter. We don’t always think through the consequences of our actions and we’re usually not very self-aware. That means that we cause crazy and ridiculous things to happen in our interactions with each other.  What I’ve learned – and what I’m trying to teach my kids – is that you can’t control what other people do.  But you can control how you handle your reaction to the crazy and ridiculous things that happen to you.  


Let me tell you a story about one of my asylum clients who had to deal with something crazy and ridiculous and totally out of her control.  Asylum seekers are fingerprinted as part of the asylum application process so that the fingerprint can be checked against the millions of fingerprints in the government’s electronic database.   After her asylum interview, my client was instructed to put her index finger on small pad to take an electronic fingerprint.  The asylum officer, looking at the computer monitor, got a strange look on her face.   “Try it again,” she instructed.   My client did so.  “You have to look at this,” she said to me.   

I could see that my client was getting more and more nervous by the second.  She was an older woman from a country in West Africa.   She had a valid asylum claim, but it wasn’t the strongest case in the world.  To be granted asylum in the U.S., you have to show that you have suffered past persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group.   That definition comes from the 1950 Refugee Convention, and it reflects the experience of World War II rather than the modern experience of conflict.  The biggest problem I saw when I was doing asylum work was not that people were coming to the U.S. and fraudulently applying for asylum.   The biggest problem was that there were a lot of people who had experienced persecution but couldn’t show why there was a connection to one of the five grounds.  In other words, if you were a victim of random violence in a war in your home country, that isn’t enough to get you asylum in the U.S.  We had worked hard to put together a case for my client that showed that the killing of her family and the burning of her home was connected to her tribe (social group) being targeted by one of the fighting factions.  She had testified honestly and well.  And now, from her perspective, she was going to be denied the safety of staying in the U.S. because of something completely out of her control.  Something was wrong with her fingerprint.  

My client and I went around to the other side of the desk and looked at the computer screen.   There was the digital image of a fingerprint.  Right next to it was a photograph of a young, surly-looking man.  Under the photo was a caption that said,  “Guatemalan Recidivist”.   The asylum officer and I looked at each other, paused, and then just burst out laughing.   My client didn’t laugh, though.  “But that’s not me!” she insisted.   “No, of course not,” said the asylum officer.  “But that’s not me!” my client said again.   “It’s picking up only part of your fingerprint and matching you with the Guatemalan guy,” said the asylum officer.  “Sometimes that happens, especially if you’ve got dry skin.  I’ll get you some lotion and we’ll try again.”  My client looked relieved.  “OK, because if there is one thing I know, it is that I am NOT from Guatemala.”  As I was driving her back to her house, I told my client, “Sometimes you have to laugh about these things or else you would cry.”  Maybe I said it before that day, but that is the first time I remember saying it.  

As a coping strategy, humor has come in handy for me when dealing with the absurdities of parenthood.  It’s probably safe to say that having a sense of humor about the crazy and ridiculous things my children have done has saved my sanity.  I’ll close with a few examples of situations where I had to laugh or else I would cry.  


This photo of my ruined front lawn was selected for the “Sh*t My Kids Ruined” book.  I couldn’t find a photo that was high enough resolution for the publishers, so I’m not sure that it will be included.  



I posted this photo on Facebook a couple weeks ago with the caption “Sometimes I’m not sure how I’m gonna make it through the next 9 winters.”





Finally, here is a video of my family in Olso, shortly after we had to leave the Nobel Peace Prize Center because my children were fighting too much.  It’s going to come in handy if one of them ever wins the Nobel Peace Prize.


You really, really can’t make this stuff up!




Making Something Out of Nothing

If you knew me in my twenties, you probably remember me as a KOW (Knitting Obsessed Woman).  I didn’t learn how to knit until I was 19, but after that I was rarely without a pair of knitting needles in my hands.  My PR is knitting a pair of mittens in 5 hours the night before Valentine’s Day as a gift for my future (and current) husband. Because I learned to knit as an adult, I distinctly remember how difficult it is.  You feel awkward as you struggle to make the needles do what you need them to do. It’s difficult to make sense of the stitches and frustrating to decipher the patterns, which seem to be written in secret code.  If you make a mistake, you have to rip out your work and start over.  But what I absolutely love about knitting is the satisfaction that comes from taking what is basically a couple of sticks and a ball of string and, through sheer effort and determination, turning a bunch of knots into something that is beautiful and useful. You are making something out of nothing.

photo from brella
 http://www.flickr.com/photos/13750491@N06/3842647159

I haven’t done much knitting in the past decade.  There are several half-finished projects at the back of my closet,  hidden behind my boots so I can’t see them and feel guilty about them.   But last weekend my friend Amy showed me some mittens that she is making for her son.  They are My Neighbor Totoro mittens and they seriously could not be cuter.  I saw them and my fingers started itching – literally – to knit them.   You can find the pattern for Totoro Mittens on Ravelry.com or by clicking on this pdf. (Special thanks to brella for allowing me use both the image and the pattern in this blog!)


For the first seven years of my career, I represented people who were fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the U.S.  Though I may not have seen them for years, I often think about my former clients.  On the day that Amy showed me the My Neighbor Totoro mittens, I happened to think of James and Julia (not their real names). James and Julia were politically active in their native Kenya, speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a little boy who I’ll call William.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog had bitten William on the head.  You could still see the wound a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.  

In police custody, Julia had been brutally and repeatedly raped.  Only a few times have I seen an asylum officer (specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview) actually cry during an an asylum interview.  Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears.  I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.


Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them.  In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school  William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had had another child, too – a daughter born here in America.

It had taken a lot of hard work for James and Julia to get to where they were.  I’m sure that they were frustrated at times with life in this strange, new country.  But they persisted and, through sheer effort and determination, made a new life for themselves and their family.  In some ways, they had even followed a pattern – the American Dream.  It wasn’t easy, but James and Julia had done it.  They had made something out of nothing.