Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week’s articles include disturbing news from Burma, holiday celebrations from families in detention, and the dismantling of a problematic registry program. Next week, we’ll be taking a break from Rights Reading for the holidays.

At immigration detention center, every child has same Christmas wish: freedom, Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, December 21, 2016

“I knew I couldn’t trust my own government in Honduras, that they wouldn’t protect us. But we came here to the United States of America thinking that this was the home of human rights, that we would find protection here. I never dreamed we would be treated this way.”

Christmas drawings from children held in detention at Berks County Detention Center.

Nearly 20 children will be spending their second Christmas in a row locked up in the Berks County Detention Center, near Berks, Penn. These children, ages two to nine-years-old, were asked what they wanted for Christmas. The wish lists had typical requests that kids would want: toys, dolls, electronics, and other gadgets; but there was one item on the list that every child wanted: to be out of detention. Whether it was to spend time with a loved one outside of detention, to be out of the Berks center, or just freedom, these children expressed the desire to be released from behind bars.

The mothers and children have fled from the Northern Triangle, a region in Central America that is considered to be the most dangerous of the world. These families have come to the United States fleeing gang violence and death threats that have become rampant in this region only to be detained for an indefinite amount of time. Immigrant groups and other advocacy groups, including UUSC, argue that there is no reason why these families should not be released, and in fact, studies have shown the psychological and emotional damage that prolonged detention has on children. These advocate groups and families are even more anxious now with the new administration threatening to deport them immediately.

For more information on the impact detention is having on families, read UUSC’s report, “No Safe Haven Here, a mental health assessment of women and children held in U.S. immigration detention.

Aldea, one of our advocacy partners, has put together an amazing Berks advent calendar, where you can take action and support these children at Berks. Help spread the word and bring hope to these families.

Obama to Dismantle Visitor Registry Before Trump Can Revive It, The New York Times, J. David Goodman and Ron Nixon, December 22, 2016

“We refuse to build a database of people based on their constitutionally protected religious beliefs.”

We’re excited to share an update and victory to one of our previous Rights Reading articles, about the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (Nseers), a visa-tracking program that would essentially be used to register Arabs and Muslims. UUSC, along with 200 other organizations, signed a letter to President Obama asking him to abolish this program. We’re happy to report that the Obama administration has officially dismantled this program in preparation for the incoming administration, which has suggested a revival of this program or something similar to it.

Not only is Nseers controversial, the Department of Homeland Security also found it to be “redundant, inefficient, with no added security”. In addition, there were no terrorism convictions as a result of Nseers.

This announcement follows news of a powerful pledge from hundreds of technology companies, including Facebook and Google, declaring “they stood in solidarity with Muslim Americans and immigrants and would not use their skills for the ‘new administration’s proposed data-collection policies.” We encourage you to read the full statement.

Militants in Myanmar Spur Army Reprisals, Refugee Flight, Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2016

“Despite living in Rakhine state for generations, Rohingya Muslims are seen by many in the country not as fellow citizens but as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.”

Rohingya refugee breaks down during protest.

United Nations officials are claiming that a genocide is unfolding in Rakhine State in western Burma against the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority. Radical, nationalist monks and their political allies in government have convinced millions that Muslims in general, and the Rohingya in particular, are a threat to their religion, their families, and their nation. Concentration-like camps have been built and entire villages are under attack. Recent satellite imagery shows that at least three have been burnt to the ground.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya are risking their lives to get out of the country as fast as possible. UUSC is working directly with our partners on the ground in Burma, as well Rohingya leaders and other allied groups who are fighting to document the truth and get food and aid to those in desperate need.

Service Learning 101: Experiences that should last beyond a personal statement

Early September has a “back to school” feel, even for those whose school days are far behind us. We can remember the combination of excitement and anxiety as we began a new chapter of our lives, moving up a grade, shifting schools, and anticipating new people and challenges.

For high school students, especially those in their last two years, anxiety can dominate this season. They’ll be choosing course work, sports commitments, and extracurriculars, many with at least a bit of preoccupation about how it will all look on their college applications. They know the competition is fierce, especially for the more elite institutions. The pressure to make themselves stand out can be intense.

This competition sometimes leads teens to seek out service learning opportunities –- but when the motive is an application over the substantive experience or personal growth, there will likely be little true service or real learning involved. As Frank Bruni wrote in a recent New York Times editorial, this kind of travel “turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.”

Grow Racial Justice
Participants in Grow Racial Justice came together for five-days at the Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal in New Orleans. A collaborative effort of UUCSJ, the Thrive Program for Young Adults of Color, and Standing on the Side of Love, this gathering equipped young adults (18-34) with skills, tools, a sense of community, and the opportunity for spiritual practice and reflection to deepen their commitment to racial justice activism.

The UU College of Social Justice views our service learning journeys through a different lens. We believe that the best “service” we can ever give to other, in particular oppressed, communities is our commitment to the long work of justice in our own home communities. A short-term immersion is often a truly transforming experience, especially for young people just beginning to explore the world around them. It can be well worth the journey, but only when it brings us into genuine relationship with our host community, prepared to hear sometimes uncomfortable truths.

Activate Boston: Climate Justice participants learned about grassroots organizing to oppose the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure and joined a People Over Pipelines march.

Immersion trips help us understand our place in the tangled matrix of privilege and power, and so engage in more sustained and effective efforts for change.

Stepping out of our comfort zones can help us understand the deep interconnections between oppressed communities (whether in the developing world or here in the U.S.) and our own experiences. Immersion trips help us understand our place in the tangled matrix of privilege and power, and so engage in more sustained and effective efforts for change. The College of Social Justice is committed to offering these transformative kinds of service learning journeys because they put everything else into a new perspective, and wake us up to all of the ways we can make a difference. And a extra bonus for high school students—these impacts last much longer than their stress about writing the perfect college application essay!

Visit UUCSJ’s website to learn more about how to sign up for a short-term immersion or volunteer trip.

Stop the Deportation Raids

Thousands of women and children fleeing violence are targeted for raids and deportation this month. Tell the Department of Homeland Security to offer them protection instead.

Remembering the Holocaust

Today is the U.N. International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. As an organization first created to help people flee Nazi oppression, UUSC has deep ties to this day. Martha and Waitstill Sharp, two of UUSC’s founders, worked to help hundreds of people, including children, in their struggles to escape what would become the Holocaust. Their work will be memorialized this fall in Two Who Defied the Nazis: The Journey of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, a PBS film produced by Ken Burns. Watch the trailer above.  

Inform Your Activism: Talking about the Central American Refugee Crisis

As the United States conducts raids, roundups, and deportations of asylum-seeking children and families from Central America, it’s important to know what's true, what's right, and what's legal. Use the key points and background below to inform your conversations and actions.

Key points | Background and update | Key points in detail

Key points

Click on each key point to read more detail.

  1. The Department of Homeland Security is using state police tactics — from family detention and abuses to home raids and roundups — to rush deportations, instill fear among immigrants in the United States, and deter other Central American asylum seekers from coming to the United States.
  2. It is imperative to be clear on the legal distinctions: asylum seekers and refugees are not "illegal immigrants."
  3. The main issue is whether these women and children have been given adequate screening and due process to determine their eligibility for international protection and asylum in the United States.
  4. The United States is not abiding by international accords regarding asylum seekers' rights, deportation, and refoulement (forcing refugees back to a place of persecution and danger).
  5. The U.S. refugee processing program for minors still in Central America is a sham and a failure. Within the United States, vulnerable asylum-seeking children are getting the short end of the rights stick.

Background and update

On December 24, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced it would begin rounding up Central American asylum seekers who have entered the United States since 2014, who have subsequently received removal orders, and whose asylum requests allegedly failed to gain acceptance. Deportation raids of private homes began the weekend of January 2, mainly in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, and DHS reported that 121 individuals were taken into custody.

The raids reportedly included illegal entries to private homes without warrants, searching for unaccompanied children and families who entered the United States after 2014, and whose requests for asylum have been denied. Immigration lawyers, UUSC, and other human rights advocates, organizations and, lawmakers are decrying the tactics, saying most families being rounded up in invasive household raids for deportation either still have pending cases or never had adequate access in the first place to translators and legal counsel to understand their rights and the processes required for their asylum claims, as is mandated federally for asylum seekers.

According to U.S. statistics, unaccompanied Central American children began crossing the southern U.S. border in 2013. In the summer of 2014, a surge of unaccompanied children and families began to pour over the border, mainly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Since the 2014 surge, the DHS reports that some 100,000 have been held and processed. Then they have either been deported, detained in family detention centers (some for more than a year), or, for those who qualify, released on bail or with electronic monitoring while they await court hearings for their asylum cases. As early as March 2015, the United States has ordered more than 7,000 of those children deported without hearing in court.

Children alone and mothers with children who have returned to the same violent environments they'd fled now face even greater threat of retribution and death, if their return is discovered by gang members and other perpetrators who had originally exploited them.

Key points in detail

1.  The Department of Homeland Security is using state police tactics — from family detention and abuses to home raids and roundups — to rush deportations, instill fear among immigrants in the United States, and deter other Central American asylum seekers from coming to the United States.

  • DHS’s recent tactics of raiding people’s homes and rounding up Central American asylum seekers is a thinly guised effort to drive fear within immigrant communities in the United States and in Central America, and to deter other child and adult asylum seekers who would seek safe haven and protection in the United States.   
  • Attorneys representing nearly a quarter of the families apprehended and on the edge of deportation the week of January 4 gained last-minute stays to their deportation orders by the highest U.S. immigrations appeal court.
  • The CARA pro bono attorneys project expedited assisting seven of those families over the weekend, and all were granted permission to stay in the United States temporarily.
  • Meanwhile, UUSC's partner RAICES reports that some women with asylum cases still pending have been visited for potential roundup and deportation.

2. It is imperative to be clear on the legal distinctions: asylum seekers and refugees are not "illegal immigrants."

  • Refugees and asylum seekers are a category of migrants distinct from the broader category of documented and undocumented immigrants who come to the United States or other countries for economic reasons or a better life. Asylum seekers are entitled by U.S. and international law to appeal for protection within the United States or other receiving countries and are entitled to due process and legal counsel.
  • Central American unaccompanied children and children with parents seeking asylum in the United States are refugees fleeing violence and death in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. As Royce Murray of the National Immigrant Justice Center said in a VICE News report, “There is a failure to recognize that this is a refugee flow.”
  • According to its Children on the Run report, UNHCR, the U.N.  Refugee Agency, has recommended that children of this population be treated as refugees.

3.  The main issue is whether these women and children have been given adequate screening and due process to determine their eligibility for international protection and asylum in the United States.

  • Asylum-seeking Central American families and unaccompanied children are being denied due process, misled, and obstructed in receiving sufficient access to legal counsel by the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and their contracted private detention center officials.
  • UUSC and other refugee rights advocates claim that DHS is leveraging the summer 2015 federal court ruling that mandated 20-day maximum detention of children and parents as a means to justify rushing them through the processing period in order to do the following:
    • Short-circuit and obstruct claimants' rightful access to legal counsel and representation for each step in the asylum seekers' review processes
    • Make it difficult for claimants to understand the system, processes, and requirements to prepare for their ultimate asylum case court hearings — or even to receive required legal notices of appointments and court dates
    • Expedite and increase deportations of families and unaccompanied children back to the violence they'd left and, as in numerous documented cases to date, to their deaths
  • Rights advocates and attorneys are finding that many of the Central American families now in detention from the raids and awaiting deportation — most of whom do not speak English and some who speak only indigenous languages — have never had access to proper legal counsel and representation.
  • That finding is consistent with UUSC's and pro bono attorneys' experience with this group of refugees since the crisis and practice of family detention began in 2014.
  • According to the research group TRAC, of 64,500 family migration cases that have filtered through the courts as of late 2015, all had passed the required "credible fear" interviews. Less than 40% had legal representation. Among those, a small fraction of the cases were fully resolved, resulting in fewer than 700 granted relief.
  • For those cases without counsel, however, the outcomes were even bleaker: just 38 were granted relief, and more than 15,300 ordered deported.

4. The United States is not abiding by international accords regarding asylum seekers' rights, deportation, and refoulement (forcing refugees back to a place where they face persecution and danger).

  • Consistent with the 1980 Refugee Act and the U.N. Convention against Torture, the U.S. government must ensure that all adults and children arriving at the U.S. border who express a fear of serious human rights violations, persecution, or torture be given due process and the opportunity to articulate their fear of return before an asylum officer.
  • The U.S. government stands to violate the principle of non-refoulement if these women and children asylum seekers have not been afforded these opportunities.
  • The Department of Homeland Security has attempted to justify its raids to date, saying it is deporting only unaccompanied children and families whose legal options for asylum have reached an end.
  • As Fusion reports, the Obama administration has set a record for the most deportations of any previous U.S. administration — more than 2.5 million. Tainting that record further are the probable inappropriate deportations back to violence now of Central American families and children.

5. The U.S. refugee processing program for minors still in Central America is a sham and a failure. Within the United States, vulnerable asylum-seeking children are getting the short end of the rights stick.

The U.S. Central American Minors Program

  • In December 2014, the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services (USCIS) created the Central American Minors program (CAM), under which minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala could apply in their home countries to be refugees in the United States and avoid the dangerous journey through Mexico.
  • As of October 6, 2015 — nearly a year after the program opened — the U.S. government said it had interviewed only 90 of nearly 4,000 Central Americans who had applied. Most of those interviewed were found eligible for assistance, but as of an October 28, 2015, Huffington Post report, none of those children had come to the United States.
  • As of November, more than 5,100 of the nearly 6,000 CAM applications have come from El Salvador. At point, 16 of them have been approved, according to department figures.

Within the United States

  • Children go through a truncated 21-day processing schedule known as “rocket dockets.” Many claimants lacked legal counsel or didn’t even show up for the hearing before their claims were rejected.
  • A recent exposé by Politico found that, within the United States, 7,600 children among the Central American refugees have either been ordered removed by an immigration judge or accepted terms of voluntary departure.
  • According to that same Politico report, in the first 13 months of the so-called surge (from July 18, 2014, through August 31, 2015), nearly 2,800 removal orders were issued by immigration judges for children and youth age 18 and younger who were afforded no defense lawyer and only a single hearing. Of those, at least 392 (40%) were 16 or younger. 
  • The Politico article cites a related and still pending federal lawsuit in Seattle “in which immigrant rights attorneys have argued that thousands of children have been denied their due process rights under the Constitution. . . . Thus far, Justice has successfully fought the case to largely a draw. But the presiding judge is clearly torn by the situation, and in an April order, he denied the administration’s request that the lawsuit be dismissed entirely."
  • According to Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a child is five times more likely to be deported without a lawyer, and yet there is no system for guaranteeing legal counsel for unaccompanied children.
  • Indeed, as cited by the Syracuse University research TRAC Immigration source, the U.S. government is under no obligation to provide legal counsel to the indigent, even if they are children, in immigration court proceedings. Meanwhile, the government is always represented by an attorney.
  • Although fewer children are entering the United States alone, the violence in their home countries has not decreased. Violence in El Salvador has in fact recently increased, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).

Left Out

Refugees in Europe

Thousands of refugees have been stranded in Europe’s eastern border zones the past few weeks in increasingly abysmal conditions and with no hope of advancing on their journey. Why? Because they happen to come from the “wrong” country. UUSC is working with partners on the ground to ensure refugees’ right to seek safe refuge no matter their country of origin.

Refugees being left out

On November 17, four Balkan countries — Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia — began closing their borders to anyone who could not prove Syrian, Afghani, or Iraqi nationality. Thousands of people with extremely serious protection needs are being denied asylum as a result. Some of the excluded refugees are people who lost their legal documents in flight (an all too common occurrence when people are running for their lives). Others are children born in exile or people who have been displaced from multiple conflicts in the Middle East (including many Palestinian and Iraqi refugees who are coming from Syria).

Thousands of refugees entering Europe do not originate from one of the three “approved” countries (Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan) but have just as urgent a need for protection. These include Yemeni children who have fled Saudi bombs and forced recruitment into rebel armies in their native country, Iranian survivors of torture and persecution, and countless others from Pakistan, Libya, Eritrea, Morocco, and elsewhere. Such refugees are resorting to desperate measures to convey to the world the urgency of their plight: last week, one group of Iranian refugees sewed their own lips shut in protest.

Reports from UUSC partners on the ground

The result of blocking out thousands of desperate refugees has been foreseeably calamitous. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding at the small Greek village of Idomeni, close to the Macedonian border, where as many as 3,000 people have been stranded at facilities equipped to house only a fraction of that number.

Praksis, UUSC’s new partner, is one of a handful of organizations providing food and medical care to this population, so far in the absence of any help from the Greek government or the European Union (EU). Praksis recently reported to us the appalling conditions their staff are witnessing on the ground in Idomeni:

“Many people are sleeping and waiting on the ground, the camp extending to the fields nearby while temperatures during night drop below zero. To heat themselves, refugees put into the fire all kinds of litter and the atmosphere is covered by a choking black cloud.

“Furthermore, there is increasing tension between ethnicities, including a protesters’ blockade that delayed the crossings. Tension has culminated since the death of a 22-year-old Moroccan who climbed a wagon because he had no proper place to sleep and died of an electroshock from the electric wire of the railway infrastructure. Conflicts rise among those who can pass and those who cannot. Desperation and anger are taking over.”

Meanwhile, the Asylum Protection Center, UUSC’s partner in Serbia, reports witnessing a striking decline in the number of people entering the country via Macedonia the past few weeks, due largely to these draconian new restrictions.

Discrimination: illegal and immoral

Refugees have a universal right under international law to cross borders and fairly present their case for asylum on an individual basis. In the words of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, to which all EU member states are party, every government must apply this right to asylum seekers “without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin” (Article 3).

To exclude asylum seekers solely because of where they come from or what papers they carry is not only against the law — it is also deeply immoral. It leaves out of consideration thousands of refugees who are in imminent need of protection but who don’t come from approved countries. It tears apart families who are of mixed nationality. It further marginalizes stateless people, who are already uniquely vulnerable on the migration trail because of their lack formal recognition. Finally, as our partners at Praksis are already witnessing on the ground, discriminatory policies cruelly pit different ethnic groups of refugees against one another, despite the fact that they are all survivors of the same kinds of violence at home and are experiencing the same long journey to safety.

Immediate responsibility for these unjust policies falls to the Balkan countries that have implemented them, but other Western governments bear a portion of it as well. EU leaders have so far completely failed to condemn the border closures; nor have they yet managed to craft a coherent resettlement plan to equitably provide for refugees across its member.

Meanwhile, many U.S. politicians are deliberately contributing to a toxic anti-refugee rhetoric that makes draconian border restrictions like these possible. In the immediate wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, more than two dozen U.S. states said they would not accept resettlement of additional Syrian refugees. In the past few weeks, the governors of Texas, Indiana, and Louisiana all directed state agencies to refuse resettlement support to any people from Syria who are referred by federal authorities, in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law. Texas this week relented on its anti-refugee stance, but Indiana’s Mike Pence is continuing to defend his blatantly discriminatory policies.

UUSC’s response

UUSC upholds the right of all people to seek asylum across borders, irrespective of their place of origin or documented status. That is why UUSC is partnering with following organizations:

  • Praksis in Greece to ensure decent reception conditions for new arrivals
  • The Helsinki Committee in Hungary to reunite refugee families
  • The Asylum Protection Center in Serbia to provide comprehensive mobile aid across the migration trail
  • The Center for Peace Studies in Croatia to provide long-term resettlement support to refugees

In all aspects of its response, UUSC seeks to protect the rights of people on the margins of society, to decriminalize migration, and to ensure refugees have power over their own destinies.

This article was written by Josh Leach, intern for UUSC’s Rights at Risk Program.