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.

DHS Memos Threaten Immigrants’ Rights, Families, and Safety

Over the long holiday weekend, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly issued two memos spelling out the implementation of Donald Trump’s recent executive orders on immigration. These memos eliminate all doubt that the administration intends to follow through on the worst of its threats in the orders signed on January 25, 2017. The memos also harden into national policy some of the most egregious human rights abuses advocates have been witnessing on the border and in our cities in recent weeks.

This is not “business as usual.” Secretary Kelly’s memos take unprecedented steps at removing long-held constitutional and statutory protections in immigration proceedings, continue to criminalize immigrants, and put children and parents lawfully seeking refuge at risk of criminal charges and separation. UUSC remains vigilant in watching the Trump administration’s efforts to expand policy in ways that violate civil and human rights and continues to work with our partners on the ground to support those affected by these unnecessary, harmful policies.

Here is a quick rundown of some of the troubling activities outlined in the memos.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can easily target just about any undocumented person for deportation and deny them due process protections.

The administration is throwing out years of “prosecutorial discretion” guidelines that had offered a small bedrock of security, however tenuous, for undocumented families. Under this new regime, anyone targeted by an ICE agent or picked up during a raid is at risk of being deported. This could separate parents from their U.S. citizen children and expel people who have lived in this country for decades or longer. The memos also designate as an enforcement priority deportation of anyone who has committed a “chargeable criminal offense,” even if they have never been arrested, tried, or convicted.

The memos will likewise expand the use of “expedited removal,” which allows ICE to deport people without any legal proceedings. This form of summary removal will now apply to every undocumented immigrant who can’t prove they have been in the country for more than two years, stripping an even wider category of immigrants of their Fifth Amendment right to due process. Such hasty deportations can be a matter of life and death since deportees from the United States are often singled out for persecution by criminal groups in Central America and Mexico.

People will be increasingly criminalized because of their immigration status.

In calling for heavier prosecution of crimes related to the southern border, Secretary Kelly has swept together grave matters like human trafficking with innocuous and victimless immigration offenses. Many of these offenses, like giving a false social security number to an employer or driving without a license, are all but inescapable for undocumented people who need to work and put food on the table. Aggressively prosecuting immigration violations will push even more innocent people into deportation proceedings. It will basically make it a crime to survive as an undocumented person in the United States.

More concerning still, there is a serious danger that these new policies will slam asylum-seekers with “illegal entry” charges if they cross the border at an “improper time or place,” which would violate international law by making it a crime to seek protection. Advocates have already heard reports that this is happening in some locations.

Asylum-seekers can be detained en masse, with little hope of parole, or worse – pushed back across the border.

Secretary Kelly has called for the near-total restriction of parole for immigrants in detention currently awaiting their court dates (many of which will be years in the future due to backlogs in the system). We have heard stories of ICE arresting and re-detaining people previously released, as well as refusing to consider parole applications from asylum-seekers.

This form of detention, in facilities run by private prison contractors, allows for the long-term incarceration of people who have done nothing worse than a civil immigration violation.

The memos will also allow DHS to send people back to Mexico to await the completion of removal proceedings regardless of whether they are Mexican nationals. Treating asylum-seekers this way would amount to a violation of international law, which forbids pushing people back across the border without screening if they have expressed fear for their safety.

Strip protections for unaccompanied children that are guaranteed by law and charge parents with “human trafficking” for bringing their children to the United States.

Currently, children who cross the border alone are protected from summary deportation under the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). Kelly’s memos redefine the term “unaccompanied child” to exclude refugee children who cross the border without adults, but subsequently reunite with their parents in the United States. This would open the door to placing children of any age into expedited removal and denying them their lawful protections under the TVPRA.

Finally, Kelly’s memos target undocumented parents for deportation or criminal charges under human trafficking laws if their children seek refuge in the United States. Parents from Central America often have few options to help their asylum-seeking children escape their persecutors apart from hiring a smuggler because criminal networks now control nearly all border crossings. The Secretary’s memos permit DHS to prosecute these parents as accessories to smuggling and human trafficking, essentially criminalizing them for protecting their children’s safety.


In response to concerns about how the Trump administration is likely to proceed, UUSC has joined with the Unitarian Universalist Association on an unprecedented course of action to align ourselves together, united in purpose to protect the values of our democracy and those vulnerable populations among us.

As a first step, we have prepared a Declaration of Conscience stating in the strongest possible terms our commitment in these troubling times. By signing the declaration, you join us in affirming our core values and declaring our willingness to put them into action. We encourage you to read the full declaration here, and add your name.

Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading includes a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This week’s Rights Reading covers abuses in Burma against the Rohingya, the latest on Trump’s travel ban, and the life-saving work of one of our partner organizations. 

UN report details ‘devastating cruelty’ against Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine province, UN News Centre, February 3, 2017

“The Government of Myanmar must immediately halt these grave human rights violations against its own people, instead of continuing to deny they have occurred, and accepts the responsibility to ensure that victims have access to justice, reparations and safety.”

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a flash report detailing human rights abuses that have been taking place in Burma against the Rohingya minority Muslim population. This report is based on over 220 interviews and testimonies collected since October 2016, though this kind of violence has been taking place for decades. Kidnapping, rape, killings, forced displacement, and houses being burned down are detailed in the report. The widespread discrimination and violence against the Rohingya are systemic and most likely considered a crime against humanity. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has also expressed serious concern and have called the abuses against children “totally unacceptable.”

The report concludes that the government must take action and do more to stop these human rights abuses.

Court Refuses to Reinstate Travel Ban, Dealing Trump Another Legal Loss, The New York Times, Adam Liptak, February 9, 2017

Last week, James Robart, a federal district judge, blocked aspects of the latest executive orders to ban refugees and migrants from seven majority Muslim countries. This decision was upheld unanimously by the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The decision was based on a lack of evidence that suggests acts of terrorism would increase and that the United States would be unsafe. The decision, while temporary, is predicted to be go to the Supreme Court, which is currently still operating without the ninth Justice. This could result in a tie decision, which would leave the 9th circuit decision in place.

The travel ban, which restricted refugees from seven countries and temporarily halted even visitors from those countries, has had the effect of approximately 60,000 canceled visas. Hundreds of individuals and families are now able to resume canceled flights and be reunited with their loved ones. This court ruling had no effect on other parts of the executive order, such as the decreased number of refugees that will be admitted, which the Trump administration reduced by more than 50%.

UUSC applauds the decision by the 9th circuit. Read our full statement here.

19,444 gallons of water in the desert: how volunteers save lives at the US border, The Guardian, Carrot Quinn, February 9, 2017

No More DeathsWater jugs left in the desert for migrants crossing the US-Mex border, a humanitarian aid organization and UUSC partner, delivered nearly 20,000 gallons of water throughout the desert along the U.S.-Mexico border last year. No More Deaths, a primarily volunteer-run organization, is able to run solely on volunteers – volunteers that hike for hours in the heat or in the cold along migrant trails, leaving water, food, clothing, and other supplies in certain spots.

It is not uncommon for volunteers to find human remains during their drop-offs. An estimated 6,029 bodies have been discovered in Arizona along the border since the 1990s. This month alone, volunteers have already come across five human remains. The number of deaths that have occurred are likely much higher than the estimates, as many disappearances have never been resolved.

No More Deaths is literally saving lives from risk of dehydration and starvation. Many who cross the border, or have attempted to cross the border are fleeing extreme violence in the Northern Triangle region. The situations are so desperate that many children and minors attempt this journey alone.

Read more about UUSC’s migrant justice work and details about the continuing efforts of our partner organizations in the United States to advocate for the rights of asylum-seekers once they arrive at the end of their perilous journeys.

UUSC Applauds 9th Circuit Ruling Blocking Trump’s Travel Ban

Protesters carrying, "No Ban" banner at No Muslim Ban march on the Capitol in Washington D.C. February 4, 2017

We will continue our work to oppose unlawful, discriminatory policies that reinforce hatred and xenophobia.

UUSC applauds yesterday’s decision by the 9th Circuit as both an important step toward protecting and supporting communities denied entry to the United States for no reason other than their country of origin and religion, and a crucial reaffirmation of the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on executive abuses. We will continue our work to oppose unlawful, unnecessary policies that reinforce hatred and xenophobia.

“It is not an overstatement to say that people’s lives are saved every day that these executive orders are restrained, especially when we’re talking about kids in an in-country refugee processing program,” said Amber Moulton, UUSC’s researcher, who has spent the past year studying ways to strengthen the government’s Central American Minors (CAM) In-Country Processing Program, which is now under threat by the administration’s actions. “We are grateful that the decision means that refugees in need of safe-haven will continue to be able to resettle in the United States in the coming days and weeks,” she continued.

We cannot rely on the courts alone to defend our rights and the rights of our neighbors. We need to make our voices heard as people of conscience.


While pivotal, the 9th circuit ruling is still a partial victory at best. It buys time for thousands of people whose lives would be upended or threatened by the administration’s “Muslim Ban”, but future court rulings could still reinstate the executive order in whole or in part. We cannot rely on the courts alone to defend our rights and the rights of our neighbors. We need to make our voices heard as people of conscience.

Join UUSC in Future Action to Defend Critical Human Rights

In response to concerns about how the Trump Administration is likely to proceed on these critical human rights issues, UUSC has launched a collaborative campaign with affected community groups, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the UU College of Social Justice. The campaign’s Declaration of Conscience is the first step to state, in the strongest possible terms, our joint commitment to our values in these troubling times.

This campaign will support community protection and self-defense strategies that expand the definition of “sanctuary” beyond the traditional focus on resisting the deportation of undocumented immigrants, to include policies and tactics that also align with the struggles of other marginalized populations who will be distinctly vulnerable under the Trump administration.

By signing the Declaration of Conscience, you join us in affirming our core values and declaring our willingness to put them into action. We encourage you to read the full declaration here and add your name to join us in this effort.

What Do Trump’s Executive Orders Really Mean? Part 3/3

photo of wall on the nogales borderThis series looks at the recent executive orders on immigration the Trump administration signed. Many, however have been left wondering what the actual impact of the new executive actions will be in practice. We hope this three-part executive order series of what we know so far will be helpful in finding answers. Click here to read parts one and two.

Trump’s executive orders will likely result in the return of asylum-seekers from Central America, Africa, Haiti, and elsewhere to persecution and possible death.

Trump’s orders call for the completion of a physical barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border as well as a variety of increased enforcement and surveillance mechanisms. The authority for such a “wall” already exists on paper, in the form of the 2006 “Secure Fence Act,” and there are already 650 miles of fencing along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. Additionally, Trump’s orders call for the hiring of 5,000 additional Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents.

  • The erection of a complete “wall” on the border would undoubtedly force more people in need of livelihood and safety to attempt even more perilous border crossings, by sea or tunnel, that would place their lives at risk. It will also make it far more difficult in practice for asylum-seekers to petition authorities for refuge. The southern U.S. border is already among the most heavily patrolled, monitored, and militarized national frontiers in the world—a fact that has forced many desperate migrants and refugees to employ increasingly hazardous means to cross the border, resulting in thousands of deaths and disappearances in the borderlands.
  • Trump’s executive orders direct authorities to detain every migrant and asylum-seeker until their removal proceeding is completed. This eliminates the discretionary power of border agents to release some people when they deem appropriate (a practice that has been misleadingly dubbed “catch and release”). Such a policy will result in a massive expansion of the detention system, even as it runs up against the fact that the detention of children in family units has already been ruled unlawful multiple times in federal courts.
  • Asylum-seekers will most likely see their claims for protection rejected at far higher rates under the impact of these executive orders. The executive branch will try to remove people at an ever faster rate and reduce the burden on limited bed space in the detention centers. Asylum-seekers at the border already have to navigate an arcane screening process that is fundamentally lacking in due process. Their fates rest in the hands of asylum officers who can judge their claim for protection to be unfounded and order their return, without the asylum-seeker ever having a chance to present their case before an immigration judge.

As president, Trump has broad discretion to issue guidance to asylum officers in making credible fear determinations, and the orders include the alarming instructions to judge fear claims in “a manner consistent with the plain language” of applicable law—which in this context, means that asylum-seekers from Central America (whose lives are often in danger at the hands of criminal networks and corrupt state actors back home, but who may not fit the narrow refugee definition) will be excluded from protection in the U.S. and sent back, possibly to their death.

With these executive orders, President Trump has signaled his reckless and callous disregard for the lives, futures, and families of our immigrant neighbors and siblings. UUSC will resist these depraved efforts to undermine the values of this country and of the world community.

What Do Trump’s Executive Orders Really Mean? Part 2/3

woman behind fenceThis series looks at the recent executive orders on immigration the Trump administration signed. Many, however have been left wondering what the actual impact of the new executive actions will be in practice. We hope this three-part executive order series of what we know so far will be helpful in finding answers. Click here to read parts one and three.

Trump’s executive orders massively expand the definition of “criminal alien,” effectively making it a crime just to be undocumented.

As described in our first blog in this series, Trump’s new executive orders make plain that the administration considers any undocumented immigrant a suitable target for deportation. After green-lighting this broad deportation push, however, the order also calls for the prioritization of immigrants who have been caught up in the criminal justice system. At first glance, this mirrors the Obama administration’s “Priority Enforcement Program” (PEP). PEP already applied an extremely broad definition of criminality that often swept in immigrants who had committed only minor offenses and innocuous immigration violations. However, Trump’s priority categories are vastly expanded even beyond the PEP. These “criminal” categories will now include:

  • Immigrants who have been charged with a criminal offense but whose cases have “not been resolved”— meaning that the administration will effectively assume automatic guilt for any undocumented person who lands in a court room or is charged by the police;
  • Immigrants who have “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.” This could include virtually every undocumented immigrant who crossed the border without permission at some point in the past, as “illegal entry” and “illegal reentry” are technically chargeable as federal crimes.
  • Immigrants who have given false social security numbers to an employer or have driven without a license, both of which could be charged as crimes, but which are a daily necessity for people who live here without documentation and who must work and transport themselves in order to survive.

The executive orders also direct the Justice Department to devote more resources to “the prosecution of criminal immigration offenses,” which include such harmless immigration violations as “entry at an improper time and place” and “reentry of a deported alien.” Such non-violent immigration violations already make up the majority of all federal criminal prosecutions nationwide, but senior Trump administration officials, including Jeff Sessions, have long signaled a desire to prosecute these offenses even more extensively.

In these ways and others, Trump’s executive orders effectively criminalize undocumented people purely for their immigration status. Furthermore, the focus on deporting immigrants who encounter the criminal justice system—even those who are not ultimately convicted of any crime— will particularly harm Black, Brown, and Muslim immigrants who are most vulnerable to racial profiling, false arrest, and any overbroad deployment of police powers.

Read the first and final posts in our series on how Trump’s executive orders on the completion of a border wall will gravely impact asylum-seekers.