An Interview With Rachel Freed, Vice President And Chief Program Officer

Carly Cronon spoke with Rachel Freed about her past work in human rights, what drew her to UUSC, and her most memorable moments with the organization thus far.

When and why did you first become involved in human rights work?

I grew up in a multicultural family and spent a lot of time visiting relatives in Southeast Asia, where I witnessed persistent inequalities and the dehumanization that went with it. It made me eager to develop my own understanding of how different political, social, economic and cultural forces shaped how and why people had certain rights over others.

Years later, a pivotal moment occurred during my junior semester abroad in India. I visited a rural fishing community that had been subject to fly ash pollution from a neighboring Exxon plant. Villagers in the community were mostly illiterate and had been told by the company that the fly ash was not harmful. In response to their concerns, the company-sponsored health clinics told villagers they were fine. This continued until a local nongovernmental organization working with a community member tested the water and found strains of harmful chemicals in the fish and streams.

Through outreach and education, the villagers organized the entire community, mobilized, and successfully demanded accountability. This experience helped me to understand the power of local communities and NGOs to catalyze vibrant and democratic social change movements.

What drew you to UUSC’s human rights work in particular?

My journey to UUSC was inspired by working with a UU congregation and community in a great struggle against injustice. When I graduated from law school, I worked for a civil rights firm in New York City, where the lead attorney humored my request to do pro bono work by connecting me to his UU congregation in Ridgewood, NJ. It was there that I met four passionate women who chose to spend their free time visiting detained asylum-seekers in detention centers. I offered to take one case, but then I started to get calls from the detention center on a daily basis.

There was one rather stark case I can remember – that of a Liberian refugee who escaped rebel forces during the reign of Charles Taylor, the former President and now convicted war criminal. After witnessing her siblings’ deaths, she fled the country and came to the United States. She lived here for almost seven years – just shy of the residency requirement to become a U.S. citizen – when a minor shoplifting incident landed her in detention, facing deportation. She had no representation, she suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and her kids had been taken into child protective services. My UU friends began to visit her each week to connect with her children’s government rep, and to help piece together the documents in her case. Next began our three-year journey together. It was quite a trek from Brooklyn to the middle of New Jersey, but my UU friends never failed to ferry me from the commuter rail, or deliver documents and do a visitation when needed. Eventually, we found the psychologist who had treated this woman in detention; he testified about her PTSD, and we were able to win the case. She was released and reunited with her children after nearly four years of living in the detention center.

I share this story because it is about a few caring individuals and what they accomplished by offering their time and generosity and by organizing their community for a specific cause. This is what drew me, and continues to draw me, to UUSC – it is our collective approach and struggle for justice in this world—as inspired by our founders and continued onwards through the years.

What do you like most about your job?

At UUSC, we are lucky to work with some of the most remarkable human rights activists around the world – people who wake each day not quite sure of what their efforts may bring for their communities, but who continue on anyway because of their deep belief in love, equality, and humanity. We are able to draw tremendous strength and courage from our partners. I also feel incredibly fortunate to work with such talented, passionate, and committed colleagues – I learn so much from all of our staff on a daily basis.

What is one of your most cherished UUSC memories or success stories?

One of my most cherished moments occurred during my trip to Nepal a few months after the 2015 earthquake, while meeting with one of our partners focused on trauma resiliency. They were helping to train a cadre of local teachers working with rural Dalit youth who had received very little support since the earthquake. We were in a small classroom when one of the children began to break down – she had lost her mother during the earthquake and was struggling to take care of her little brother. One of the trainers immediately calmed her down, and they sat for a while, talking and focusing on her breathing and the present moment. She managed to calm down, stop crying, and soon was smiling and sharing with us her dreams for her brother and telling us about her hopes for herself. It was really moving. I felt proud to know that UUSC was able to help bring trauma resiliency skills to teachers serving Dalit children in a remote area that had been overlooked by larger recovery efforts.

What do you and your team look for in finding new UUSC partners?

UUSC’s approach is unique to most Western human rights organizations because we center the voices of communities and their values in our pursuit to advance human rights and transform unjust power structures. Our model focuses not on a community’s helplessness or lack of knowledge, but rather their assets and their solutions. Therefore, we generally look to partner with smaller, lesser-known organizations doing innovative work to transform and empower marginalized populations, often in the face of extreme and adverse circumstances. The process of selecting new partners involves working with those organizations to identify how UUSC’s financial and other resources can be best leveraged to further human rights on the ground. It also includes mapping stakeholders, identifying points of power, and thinking through how UUSC’s voice and prominence as a U.S.-based human rights organization can be used to instigate systemic change.

What is an upcoming UUSC initiative that you are particularly excited about?

I’m in the middle of packing my bags for a trip to Zagreb, Croatia to participate in a convening that brings together our partners in the Balkans who are helping to serve Syrian refugees. At this convening, our partners from Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Croatia will be coming together to exchange information, build relationships, coordinate responses and collectively strategize on how to navigate the increasingly challenging political environments in which they operate. Our Balkans partners work in counties that have become increasingly hostile towards refugees, and their organizations are facing new government restrictions on their work. I’m excited to talk with them about their experiences and strategize ways UUSC can support their collective efforts during this critical time.

Global Compact for Migration Offers a Strong Signal for the Protection of Human Rights

             

L: Representatives from the Mission of Tuvalu to the UN and Palau’s Ministry of Immigration with Salote Soqo, UUSC’s Senior Program Leader R: Civil society groups meeting outside the conference venue

Delegations came together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

The stocktaking meeting for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which took place in Puerto Vallarta December 4-6, 2017 was “extraordinarily” positive. Extraordinary in the sense that during a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia around the world, there was great convergence amongst delegates to center the global compact on the protection of the rights of all migrants, and that the withdrawal of the United States from the compact did not seem to deter the spirit of the deliberations. What was seen instead was delegations coming together in strength and in unity to improve global governance on migration.

In addition to the unifying call for a human rights-centered compact that respects and empowers all migrants, other messages were loud and clear: the compact should be gender sensitive, respect migrant workers, protect children, counter xenophobia and the criminalization of migrants, encourage data-driven policies, ensure ethical business practices for migrants regardless of their status, uphold existing conventions and treaties, respect national sovereignty and above all else, increase the benchmark for addressing migration.

These are all overlying principles that we must support when it comes to governing all forms of migration, including climate-forced displacement. UUSC hopes that states will adopt these principles in earnest as they develop domestic and regional policies and we encourage states to combine compassion with urgency and diligence as they embark on this historic momentum.

The high number of non-state actors that turned up at the meeting and their engagement since the inception of the global compact has also been encouraging. From faith leaders to labor unions, and other civil society groups, like UUSC – our engagement with state delegations has made this process inclusive. Perhaps it was the scenery that made this meeting so pleasant or probably the fact that we were only a few weeks away from the holidays, but this is the standard that we hope the negotiations will adopt moving forward into 2018 and beyond.

Love Resists Deportation on the Capitol Steps

On Wednesday, December 6, I joined more than 180 people who were arrested on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, in what organizers reported to be the single largest immigrant-led act of civil disobedience of the Trump era. United We Dream, CASA in Action, and the Center for Community Change organized us to came to Washington to demand a clean Dream Act and permanent protections for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, sacrificing a bit of our freedom to halt a xenophobic agenda that threatens the freedom of millions. Together, we told Congress that the pending loss of status for 59,000 Haitian TPS holders and 700,000 Dreamers is an emergency and that the time to act is now, before the December 22 spending bill deadline.

“We will not forget the original dreamers: our parents, our grandparents,” said Denea Joseph, a leader with UndocuBlack. “We will not be complicit.”

On behalf of UUSC and Love Resists, I was honored to join this action, which included Dreamers, labor leaders, immigrant activists, educators, and faith leaders of all traditions. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) and Judy Chu (D-CA), two current members of Congress and long-standing advocates for immigrant rights were arrested alongside us. Cheering us on were thousands of Dreamers and supporters, chanting encouraging words to remind us: We believe that we will win!

Activists gather on the steps of the Capitol in protest of congressional inaction on TPS and the Dream Act.

An honor to be arrested with you

On December 5, the day before the action, UUSC’s partners the UndocuBlack Network and the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC), an ally organization, held a joint press conference in front of the Capitol as part of their Black-AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Immigrant Day of Action. The inspiring conference featured four members of Congress and directly impacted activists. All spoke to the urgent need to pass a clean Dream Act and a TPS solution – and, in particular, to ensure that neither comes at the expense of other immigrants. “We will not forget the original dreamers: our parents, our grandparents,” said Denea Joseph, a leader with UndocuBlack. “We will not be complicit.”

Their example and that of many others helped me to find my courage the next day. As a first-time participant in civil disobedience, I felt no small amount of trepidation, but I was  inspired by the Dreamers who I know have risked far more in other acts of peaceful protest and found enormous strength in the people around me. I was in the company of veteran leaders from across the immigrant rights movement. In the pen next to mine was Gustavo Torres, the executive director of CASA de Maryland, the largest immigrant rights group in the state and an important figure for years in the campaign for immigration reform. Becky Belcore from NAKASEC, one of the lead organizers of the 22-day Dream Action Vigil that Love Resists joined in September, was there as well. Shaking hands across the metal traffic barrier, I told Becky it was an honor to be arrested with her.

“We see you, we love you”

A particularly unforgettable moment from Wednesday’s action came as we – the more than 180 of us arrested – were being led away by the police. An organizer from United We Dream leaned out of the crowd and called to us. “Thank you for sacrificing yourself for our rights. We see you, we love you, we see you, we love you.

These words moved me more than I can say, especially in that moment. At the same time, I realized that I was not really worthy of them—my detainment was only for about two hours. And while I had to return to a police station the next day to submit my fingerprints and a pay cash fine, I was safe and on a train back home to Boston the same day.

Between the minimal freedom that I parted with, and the freedom that is taken from the thousands of people held in immigration detention, or who are deported from their loved ones, there is no real comparison. To contemplate the risks that so many others have taken to travel across borders, to live and work without papers, to seek asylum from persecution, is to understand that my own ‘sacrifice’ weighs very lightly in the balance.

Activists await arrest.

We cannot continue to deny Dreamers and TPS holders this opportunity. It is their futures, in some case their existence itself, that are on the line. Staring up at the Capitol Dome from the steps where we sat, a line from Yeats came back to me: Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.

As the next few weeks unfold, members of Congress may be tempted to waiver in their support for our immigrant communities. They may ask whether the Dream Act cannot wait until another time, or whether it really needs to be “clean” (i.e., with no anti-immigrant riders). This is because they are seeing through the eyes of privilege, with the myopia of power. As politicians who make many legislative decisions, they can afford to accept “compromises” and delays. But this process has a cost and we must recommit ourselves to supporting communities and individuals who would be directly and irreparably harmed by this inaction.

In the coming days, I invite others to join me in reflecting on this injustice, and to ask if we cannot perhaps give a little bit more for a clean Dream Act than we already have. When every hour is threatened for some of us, we all can devote a few minutes to writing to our local paper. When some of us are being silenced, we must all raise our voices to our legislators to defend our shared community. Let us dare to give more for freedom, and ensure that all of us have the chance to celebrate that right and live without fear.

Trump’s Haiti TPS Decision is Disastrous – and Can Be Defeated

UUSC calls for the immediate reinstatement of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haiti and a permanent legislative solution, in the wake of the Trump administration’s callous decision last night to withdraw TPS from 59,000 Haitians in the United States. This decision is morally indefensible and blatantly at odds with current realities in Haiti. Congress has the power to extend protections for TPS holders by passing the SECURE Act and should act without delay.

Haitian TPS holders have spent years in the United States, building lives and enriching our communities. They are also the parents of an estimated 27,000 U.S. citizens. Just days before the start of the holiday season, the administration has thrown these families’ unity, futures, and lives into jeopardy. The U.S. State Department issued a warning in September to U.S. citizens about the dangers of traveling to Haiti that remains in effect as of this writing. Yet the administration proposes to deport the parents of 27,000 U.S. citizens to these very dangers.

Haiti is in no position to receive people who have been living in the U.S. for years. The country continues to grapple with the compounding effects of recent hurricanes, a cholera epidemic introduced by U.N. peacekeeping forces, a recent outbreak of diphtheria, a devastating 2010 earthquake, and ongoing political instability and economic dislocation wrought by decades of U.S. intervention. A program of mass deportation and the end of remittances from TPS holders, which provide a critical economic lifeline for the country, would be a further catastrophe.

UUSC and our Haitian partners are directly aware of the gravity of the injustices facing Haiti and the ongoing need for TPS. As Associate Director for Program and Partner Support Michael Kourabas wrote upon his return from a recent visit to our partners the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP), with whom UUSC has collaborated on an innovative model for sustainable recovery called the EcoVillage project, “The structural disadvantages facing Haiti, particularly when experienced first-hand, can feel paralyzing… Both the enormity of the struggle and the sliver of hope are on display in the EcoVillages.”

Heartless as the administration’s move may be, it is not surprising. Last night’s decision is the latest in a string of similar blows to programs that uphold the rights and safety of immigrants. In the past few months alone, the administration has terminated Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Central American Minors (CAM) program, and TPS protections for both Nicaraguan and Sudanese nationals.

While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claimed yesterday that its decision was based solely on a review of conditions in Haiti, its actions reveal it as part of a larger agenda of criminalizing immigrant communities.

When DHS made an earlier determination about TPS last spring, senior officials reportedly instructed staffers to dig up stories of Haitian TPS holders committing crimes. Previous DHS Secretary John Kelly allegedly pressured Acting Secretary Elaine Duke to end TPS for Hondurans as well, earlier this month, as part of a broader push against the program.

This xenophobic agenda can be resisted and defeated. Last week, Members of Congress introduced the SECURE Act, which would enable TPS holders to become green-card holders after three years. UUSC’s partners at the UndocuBlack Network, along with allies from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Mormon Women for Ethical Governance, CASA and other organizations, joined with Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen to introduce the Bill. Congress can and should pass this legislation immediately and protect 55,000 Haitian immigrants who are beloved members of our communities.

Once again this week, the administration used the enormity of its power to harm some of the most vulnerable communities in the United States; yet, the strength and leadership of our partners gives us hope that there is still time to sway the future. As the poet Langston Hughes once wrote: “I have such meager power/ Clutching at a moment, while you control an hour./ But your hour is a stone./ My moment is a flower.”

Tell DHS: Hands Off Immigrants’ Social Media!

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is taking new steps to monitor and criminalize immigrant communities: they’re pro-actively gathering and recording social media information of all immigrants to the United States – including new immigrants, permanent residents, and naturalized citizens.

This data could be used to prosecute, deny benefits to, limit due process of, and even deport people. It may also affect those who communicate with immigrants on social media by including their conversations in government surveillance.

UUSC sent the comment below in response, urging DHS to rescind this rule. Join us to defend immigrants’ privacy at uusc.org/defend-privacy and submit your own public comment by Wednesday, October 18, 2017!

October 17, 2017

Mr. Jonathan R. Cantor
Acting Chief Privacy Officer
Privacy Office
Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528-0655

Re: DHS-2017-0038 – Notice of Modified Privacy Act System of Records

Dear Mr. Cantor:

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee submits this comment for the public record to express our opposition to the Department of Homeland Security’s recent modification to the Privacy Act System of Records, published as docket number DHS-2017-0038 (the “proposed rule”). In particular, we are concerned by the new provisions on p. 43557, paragraph 1, column 1, to “expand the categories of records to include […] social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results[.]”

We respectfully request that the agency withdraw this proposed rule. As a human rights agency with over 40,000 members and supporters across the United States, we believe this proposed rule threatens the rights and principles we and our partners work to uphold. Our chief concerns are as follows:

This proposed rule is discriminatory.

The proposed rule unfairly burdens naturalized citizens with a degree of surveillance that does not apply to birthright citizens. It thereby sets up a two-tiered system of citizenship, in violation of the principle of the equal protection of the laws.

The proposed rule would expose immigrants and others with Alien files to higher levels of surveillance and government scrutiny than other U.S. residents. This is a form of , i.e. subjecting some members of the community to an unjust presumption of suspicion.

This proposed rule chills free speech.

Information posted on social media may be misrepresented as “gang-related” and place an immigrant at heightened risk of deportation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) frequently prioritizes deportation of immigrants based on alleged gang ties, and immigration agents have, according to several recent lawsuits, repeatedly misinterpreted hand gestures, tattoos, and colored clothing as symbols of gang membership.

Gang membership accusations are made and acted upon without due process or lawful conviction and on the basis of unreliable “gang databases.”[2] They are therefore particularly vulnerable to being informed by racial and ethnic bias.

This proposed rule threatens privacy.

While this new rule directly affects only publicly available information on social media, CBP and ICE agents have in the past asked immigrants to divulge social media passwords. We are concerned that the collection of information on social media accounts under this new rule, as well as the linking of online aliases to real people, could easily create more targets for future government efforts to obtain social media log-in credentials and other private information.

Government surveillance and data collection on such a scale may intrinsically be rife with potential for abuse, including stalking, data breaches, and other major invasions of privacy.[3]

This proposed rule will not make anyone safer.

The use of information on social media has not proven to be a valuable tool in screening for immigration benefits. DHS’s Office of the Inspector General found in a February 27, 2017 report that DHS pilot programs to collect social media information “lack criteria for measuring performance to ensure they meet their objectives.”[4]

Theories of “radicalization” that treat opinions and statements made on social media as reliable indicators of future violent or terrorist behavior have been debunked.[5] Violent acts are not reliably linked to specific ideologies, belief statements, or personality profiles, and vice versa.

This proposed rule threatens due process.

This new rule arrives at a time when Congress is considering options that would further undermine due process for lawful permanent residents, asylum seekers, and other immigrants. (See the “Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act” (H.R. 3697), e.g.)[6] Now is a particularly dangerous time to open more immigrants’ photos and personal information to potential misinterpretation as gang-related.

In these ways and others, we remain concerned that this proposed policy will encourage the use of unjust stereotypes about criminality and terrorism as a basis for government actions.

We strongly urge you to heed these concerns and rescind the new rule.

Respectfully,

Joshua Leach
Associate for Programs, Research and Advocacy
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
jleach@uusc.org

[1] National Public Radio, “Undocumented Teens Say They’re Falsely Accused Of Being In A Gang,” August 17, 2017. http://n.pr/2zlDdp9; Vice News, “How ICE Uses Secret Police Databases to Arrest Immigrants,” August 28, 2017. http://bit.ly/2wMa4FT

[2] Ali Winston, The Intercept, “Vague Rules Let ICE Deport Undocumented Immigrants as Gang Members,” February 17, 2017. http://bit.ly/2lt0jGw

[3] Upturn, “Civil Rights, Big Data, and Our Algorithmic Future,” 2014. https://bigdata.fairness.io/database-abuse/

[4] DHS OIG, “DHS’s Pilots for Social Media Screening Need Increased Rigor to Ensure Scalability and Long-term Success,” February 27, 2017. http://bit.ly/2yJ94TK

[5] Faiza Patel, Meghan Koushik, Brennan Center, “Countering Violent Extremism,” March 16, 2017. https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/countering-violent-extremism

[6] https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/115/hr3697

Immigrants have the same rights to free speech and privacy as everyone. No one should feel they are the targets of profiling, monitoring, and unreasonable suspicion by the state. We must raise our collective voices against this far-reaching rule. Tell the government: Respect the privacy and safety of immigrants by keeping out of their social media.

The U.S. Has A Moral Responsibility to Support Refugees

UPDATE: On Wednesday, September 27, 2017 the White House officially announced to Congress that it will set the refugee admissions cap to a historic low of only 45,000 in FY2018. In response, UUSC calls on Congress to do everything in its power to raise the cap to at least 75,000. The administration’s efforts to shut the door on refugees as part of its xenophobic political agenda do not diminish the moral responsibility of the United States to provide refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution. We continue to stand with refugees, their families, and their communities and will continue to fight for their rights.

UUSC condemns the White House’s threats to cut the refugee admissions quota to a historic low of less than 50,000 and urges the administration to institute a refugee admissions quota of no less than 75,000 in FY2018. At a time when the world is in the midst of the largest global migration crisis on record, any decision to reduce the refugee admissions cap would be an affront to the moral responsibility of the United States to provide a safe-haven for those fleeing violence and insecurity.

Lowering the admissions level is not factually grounded and represents yet another example of the Trump administration’s attacks on refugee and immigrant communities that include the Muslim ban, supporting the RAISE Act, and the decisions to end the Central American Minors (CAM) and the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programs. Despite what the administration claims, these attacks on refugee and immigrant communities do not promote national security or the economy. They are only designed to further the Administration’s nativist political agenda. As recent leaks have revealed, the administration appears to recognize that there is no justification for reducing the quota and has even gone so far as to actively suppress evidence about the contributions refugees make to our economy in order to justify their plans to reduce refugee admissions.

It is also important to note that news of the administration’s potential cuts to the refugee quota came the same week that the Supreme Court rejected part of a Ninth Circuit decision temporarily halting Trump’s executive order commonly called the “Muslim ban.” This ruling means that refugees will no longer be protected from the ban, even if they have a preexisting agreement with a resettlement agency. While the lower court ruling regarding extended family members still applies, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the Muslim ban on October 10. In response, UUSC has signed onto an amicus brief calling on the Supreme Court to affirm the previous holdings of the Ninth and Fourth Circuits and block the ban from being enforced.

In recognition of the pattern of attacks on refugee and immigrant communities coming from the White House, it is critical that we take action in solidarity with refugees and immigrants. We encourage you to join us in supporting #NoMuslimBanEver, a national month action of online and in person events leading up to the Supreme Court hearing.

Please check our website, Twitter and Facebook accounts regularly for updates on how you can continue to join us to support refugee and immigrant communities and resist the Muslim ban.