Rights Reading

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading in human rights and social justice! This week’s wrap-up includes select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss: Highlights from the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia; updates on family detention; and the latest on climate-forced displacement. 

‘A miracle happened’: 300 rally for LGBT rights in St. Petersburg, Colin Stewart, Erasing 76 Crimes, May 18, 2017

May 17 marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (#IDAHOT or #IDAHOBIT). People all across the world celebrated by  wearing colorful clothes that signify the colors of the rainbow, going to rallies, and being vocal online about their support for and solidarity with the LGBTQI community

There were even celebrations in countries with extremely anti-LGBTQI laws. Colin Stewart shares one story about a rally in Russia, where law enforcement stops pro-LGBTQ protests and detains participants. But this year 300 took to the streets in St. Petersburg, and due to their persistence and some fortuitous timing, received police protection. Organizers of the protest shared their thoughts, “Our strategy is ‘constant dripping wears away a stone,’ and today a little chip of that stone fell off.” This is a marked change from the typical response to LGBTQI rallies and protests in Russia and is a testament to how community organizing and persistence can yield surprisingly happy results.

Immigrants in Detention Centers Are Often Hundreds of Miles From Legal Help, Patrick G. Lee, ProPublica, May 16, 2017

It’s almost impossible for immigrants to win their case to stay in the United States if they don’t have an attorney, no matter how strong their case. There are multiple system-level obstacles that immigrants face as they seek U.S. citizenship, and those barriers can be insurmountable if they are being held in detention centers.

In this article, Patrick Lee provides background and context to the reality of this situation. Because detained immigrants lack the right to an appointed attorney, they must either pay for a lawyer or find one who will take on their case pro bono. However, many lawyers won’t take these cases and many who do lack the necessary time and resources to take on more than a handful of clients from the thousands of immigrants currently in detention centers. On top of this, detention center locations often make lawyers geographically inaccessible, something which Amy Fischer, policy director of UUSC partner RAICES, calls a purposeful move by the federal government to inhibit immigrants’ access to legal resources.

Under President Trump, ICE is ramping up its immigration control policies – arresting more immigrants and making plans for more detention centers. UUSC and its partners, like RAICES, are working hard to ensure that immigrants have the necessary legal resources and protections to plead their case and build their lives in the United States.

Mulling the possibility of a “managed retreat” from climate change, Rachel Waldholz, Alaska Public Media, April 28, 2017

Media coverage and aid are much easier to come by for communities displaced when a natural disaster hits. But refugees who are forced to leave their homes due to the slow onset of climate change are often overlooked, even though rising sea levels, erosion, and other consequences of global warming are expected to disrupt thousands of communities over the course of the next several decades.

The choice to relocate is one that must be made by individual communities, but even but even they make that decision, there is often no financial support from local and national governments or NGOs, who have been slow to recognize the severity of climate-forced displacement. Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ), argues that the lack of funding is different from political will, which she feels does in fact exist. “There’s this urgent need to protect populations from climate change, but we don’t have the laws in place to facilitate it,” Bronen said. “[That] means that government agencies don’t have mandates or funding to make it possible to actually implement what everybody agrees is the best long-term adaptation strategy.”

UUSC partners with AIJ and other organizations working on climate-forced displacement across the globe to support their efforts to help communities facing destruction at the hands of rising sea levels and prepare themselves for relocation.

Asylum-Seeking Families at Risk Under Trump’s Aggressive Immigration Policies

In just over a month, the new administration has executed a multi-pronged assault upon refugees and asylum-seekers who need humanitarian protections that the United States can and must provide.

Legally, people who are on U.S. soil, and meet the definition of a “refugee” should be granted asylum protections. This means that they face or fear persecution if they were returned to their country of origin based on their race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

98% of CAM applicants report exposure to danger in communityThe U.S. has seen a dramatic rise in asylum claims in the past decade, largely fueled by escalating violence and widespread international gang activity that has created a deadly crisis in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, often referred to as the “Northern Triangle” of Central America. Families seeking asylum have fled the region at incredibly high rates. From 2008-2014, asylum applications increased over 1,000% in the countries that neighbor the Northern Triangle and rose 370% in the United States.

In FY2016, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended nearly 60,000 unaccompanied minors and 77,857 families nationwide, most at the southwestern border. Many of these families were Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service reports conducting nearly 100,000 credible fear screenings of asylum seekers in FY2016, with extremely high granting rates: nearly 80% of people that pundits and critics call “illegal immigrants” have a credible fear of persecution in their home country.

Refugees from the Northern Triangle

In 2014, the Obama administration created a limited refugee resettlement program allowing some children in the Northern Triangle to apply for refugee protections and be reunited with a parent who is a legal resident in the United States. The program was touted as saving children the dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico, and allowed them to seek asylum at the U.S. border. Since November 2014, there have been nearly 11,000 applications for the program and approximately 1,800 children have been reunited with their parents here in the United States with either refugee status or humanitarian parole. UUSC researchers spent the last year conducting research about how to make the Central American Minors In-Country Refugee Processing Program (CAM) even more effective and have direct testimony from CAM participants about the need for this life saving pathway to safety.

The children who use CAM are in imminent danger at the hands of gangs and corrupt police where they live. When asked why they applied for refugee status, CAM applicants have shared reasons like:

  • “I received threats from a gang member. Before that, two friends of mine who played on the same soccer team in which I played appeared dead . . . he told me that if I did not want something to happen to me or be killed, I should leave the neighborhood.”
  • “My fear sometimes is that my baby will get sick at night . . . no one leaves and if they leave they have to be accountable for where they go to the gangs. . . [my baby] suffers from epilepsy and I have to go for treatments in San Salvador, when we go we try to do everything fast, to return early . . . it is very difficult to live constantly with fear.”
  • “I am afraid to leave the house now because gang members meet outside my house . . . My family and I are in danger . . . if we do not give the [rent] they are going to kill one of us . . . you cannot live in peace.”

However, President Trump’s January 27, 2017 executive order suspending all refugee resettlement for 120 days likewise suspended CAM. While a handful of CAM refugees who had already been granted refugee status have been able to fly to the United States in the weeks since the 9th Circuit Court stayed the presidents’ executive order, the administration has effectively halted refugee processing. This avenue to refuge is now closed for thousands of Central American children who may have to begin their application almost from scratch when and if CAM is reinstated.

Part of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico.
Part of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico.

With the refugee program halted, children will need to travel through Mexico to seek asylum at the U.S. border. There, too, the administration appears poised to cause immense harm to asylum-seeking families and children. DHS Secretary Kelly’s recent memos indicate that the department will:

  • Extend the border wall to make entry into the United States more difficult.
  • Deport asylum-seekers to Mexico or place them in U.S. detention centers while they await a decision on their case, placing families in inhumane prison-like conditions that we know causes lasting harm.
  • Strip protections for unaccompanied children that are guaranteed by law and charge parents with “human trafficking” for bringing their children to the United States.

Alarmingly, reports from El Paso, Texas, indicate that CBP agents have already turned asylum-seekers back from official ports of entry, denying them even the chance to make their asylum claim.

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.

UUSC applauds court ruling and continues the call for an end to family detention

Last week, Texas District Court Judge Karin Crump ruled that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) could not issue child care licenses to the family detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City. The licenses are required by a federal settlement agreement and without them, the facilities cannot lawfully hold families with children. UUSC Senior Program Leader for Rights at Risk, Jillian Tuck explained Judge Crump’s ruling, “Again a court has found that locking up children and their parents in prison-like facilities is unacceptable. Flores requires that facilities detaining children have state child care licenses, and without them, ICE, as well as the private and public providers they contract with, are operating outside the law.”

“Locking up children and their parents in prison-like facilities is unacceptable.”
– Senior Program Leader for Rights at Risk, Jillian Tuck

Virtually overnight Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released over 470 mothers and children from detention centers to UUSC partner, RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services). RAICES serves immigrants and refugees by providing immigration legal services, advocacy, and opportunities for educational and social support. In partnership with RAICES, UUSC has long been a vocal advocate for the tens of thousands of refugees who come to the United States after fleeing violence in Central America.

RAICES reports that the asylum-seeking families who were released are in various stages of the legal processes that normally take place in detention and is working to place them with their families and friends. They will continue to accept released families from detention at their shelter in San Antonio. UUSC is committed to ending the practice of detaining immigrant families seeking asylum and supporting those who’ve been released in their quest to seek permanent protection.

According to ICE, as of Monday, December 5 there were still 2,479 mothers and children in family detention centers across the country: 1,787 people held at Dilley; 606 at Karnes County Residential Center; and 86 held at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, Texas DFPS, which argues that their child-care licensing meets minimum standards set by Flores and improves safety, has already filed an appeal to Judge Crump’s decision. UUSC continues to join RAICES, among multiple others, in calling on President Obama to end family detention before he leaves office.

Stories of Hope 2016: Lilian Castillo

Photo of Lilian and her sonThis story of Lilian Castillo is presented as part of UUSC’s Guest at Your Table program.

“My son lost his childhood in that center.”

While listening to her long and appalling description of conditions at the Karnes County Residential Center, an immigration detention facility near San Antonio, you quickly understand what a strong woman Lilian Castillo is. But when the subject turns to her only child, Lilian finally begins to lose her composure.

And why not? After all, it was to save her eight-year-old son, Jose, from the brutal violence plaguing their home in Honduras that she’d undertaken the long and risky journey to reach the United States. She was determined to offer him something better than an early death at the hands of the criminal gangs that control so much of Honduran society, giving it one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Who among us would harshly judge a mother for trying to deliver a brighter future for her child? Inexcusably, our own Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did.

For ten months, ICE locked Lilian and Jose in the Karnes detention center — for all practical purposes a prison camp, surrounded by razor wire fencing, and a grossly inappropriate environment for any child.

Ten months of inadequate medical care and malnutrition. Ten months of abuse and the ever-present threat of solitary confinement in the “cold room.” Ten months of living with the fear of sexual assault by the guards. Ten months of treatment so unconscionable it provoked at least one suicide attempt by a fellow prisoner and drove Lilian and other women to go on a hunger strike. Ten months of wondering whether she’d lost all hope for her son’s future.

Lilian and Jose came to this country in search of sanctuary — but were met instead with cruelty and abuse at the hands of our own government.

And then UUSC entered the picture. We’ve partnered with the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a grassroots organization, to provide legal and casework assistance to thousands of mothers like Lilian caught in the immoral machinery of the broken U.S. immigration system.

RAICES helps these refugees assert their rights and navigate ICE’s complex legal and bureaucratic rules. Once women and children are released, the organization also connects them with local families for temporary housing and support before they are, typically, reunited with relatives elsewhere in the United States.

The lawyer RAICES provided helped Lilian convince a judge, finally, to release her and Jose — and, as Lilian puts it, “gave me hope that I had a chance here in the United States.”

Today, Lilian and her boy are living in New York with her sister. And what of Jose’s future?

“I see the happiness in my son’s eyes, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happiness before. I want to keep moving forward. I know everything will fall into place.”