Syria TPS Decision Provides Needed Relief, But Not Nearly Enough

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) welcomes reports that the Trump administration has decided to renew Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 6,000 Syrians living in the United States, while expressing dismay and consternation that this provision will not cover Syrians arriving after August 1, 2016.

In the lead up to this decision, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had the option of re-designating Syria for TPS, rather than merely renewing. A re-designation would have allowed more recent Syrian arrivals to apply for the status. In previous extensions, TPS for Syrian nationals has been re-designated as well as renewed.

It is difficult to imagine a country that more directly fits the criteria for re-designation than Syria. It is in the midst of an ongoing civil war that has generated the world’s largest contemporary refugee crisis and taken the lives of at least 400,000 people. The new administration’s refusal to take the step of re-designation is impossible to reconcile with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s admission that “the conditions upon which Syria’s designation was based continue to exist.”

The failure to re-designate Syria also provides further disturbing evidence that the administration grounds its TPS decisions in xenophobia and bias, rather than the individual country assessments that Congress intended when it created the TPS program in 1990.

In November, the Trump administration ended TPS for 59,000 Haitian nationals, despite the country’s ongoing natural disaster recovery and recent disease outbreaks. In early January, they likewise announced the end of TPS for nearly 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador, in the midst of extreme violence and other major social disruptions in that country. The NAACP has filed a lawsuit charging that the TPS decision for Haiti was racially motivated, citing abundant evidence of the administration’s prejudice against TPS holders.

As with these other TPS decisions, DHS’s refusal to re-designate Syria did not occur in a vacuum. President Trump campaigned on a pledge to institute a “Muslim Ban,” and his rhetoric on both the campaign trail and in office has made Syrian refugees a frequent target of fear-mongering.

Further, last week marked the one-year anniversary of the administration’s failed attempt to implement a discriminatory ban on refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. Despite being struck down by multiple courts, the Trump administration continues to impose new versions of the order on Syrian nationals, including new restrictions announced Monday that will make it harder for refugees from Syria and ten other countries to reach safety in the United States.

The administration’s political and biased use of TPS bodes ill for immigrant communities whose futures depend on DHS renewal decisions later this year. These include Nepal in April, Yemen in July, and Somalia in November. All of these countries are sites of ongoing recovery efforts from recent natural disasters or devastating armed conflicts to which the U.S. government has directly contributed.

UUSC urges the administration to honor the humanitarian purpose of the TPS program, rather than wield it as a nativist, political cudgel. In the meantime, Congress should act to pass permanent legislative solutions for long-term TPS holders, who are all members of our shared community.

Decision to Withdraw from Paris Agreement a “Step Backward”

Despite an enormous outpouring of public support from within the United States and abroad, today the Trump administration announced its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. This action is reckless and irresponsible, but we are not deterred. Together with our partners, UUSC will continue to seek every opportunity to advocate for policies that combat the effects of climate change.

The decision is unsurprising, as Trump made repeated promises to do so during his presidential campaign last fall. However, we are deeply concerned that the United States has chosen to take a path out of line with the goals the entire world agreed to work towards together just two years ago. There are only two countries that did not support the landmark climate deal: Syria, which is in the midst of a devastating civil war and Nicaragua, which thought the Agreement too weak.

Leaving the Paris Agreement is a dangerous step backward and a grave injustice to the rest of the world, particularly to smaller countries in the Global South. The United States has an obligation to protect those that have made vulnerable by their carbon emissions. The Agreement was one way we, as a global community, sought both to assign responsibility where it is due and find solutions to issues that affect us all.

Today’s executive order reaffirms concerns that leadership on issues important to so many across the globe—climate change, economic justice, and human rights overall—can no longer come from the White House. In this moment, it is important to remember that there are individuals, groups, and communities dedicated to resisting policies that roll back our protections and continually working to create a better future in the face of harmful policies.

Our community partners in the South Pacific and Alaska are working to build protections in place to adapt to climate change and to safely relocate with dignity to protect their lives and their families from the harrowing impacts of sea level rise, coastal erosion, melting glaciers and natural disasters. Abandoning our responsibility by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement now is an added insult, as even that Agreement came too late for the many vulnerable communities already living with the realities of climate change.

UUSC will continue to work with and support these groups, finding and capitalizing on opportunities to effect positive change and build a sustainable future wherever possible.

 

UUSC Condemns Trump’s Praise of Philippine President Duterte

On April 29, the White House reported that President Donald Trump had a “very friendly conversation” with President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose brutal and illegal “war on drugs” has resulted in nearly 9,000 extrajudicial killings in less than one year. President Trump “enjoyed the conversation” so much that he invited Duterte to visit the White House. UUSC, together with our partners on the ground in the Philippines, condemns this shameful invitation.

Though praised by President Trump, Duterte’s campaign of extrajudicial killings is effectively a war on the urban poor amounting to crimes against humanity under international law. In addition to thousands of murders, more than 1 million people have “surrendered” to authorities in order to avoid being killed. The cruel drug war has also led to more than 50,000 arrests and exacerbated a problem of gross overcrowding in Philippine jails. Just days ago, a “secret jail” was discovered in the Manila District Police Station, where detainees arrested on purported drug charges were allegedly tortured.

UUSC’s partners in the Philippines, including the National Association of Social Work Educators, Inc. (NASWEI), Visayas Primary Health Care Services (VPHCS), and the Philippine Association of Community Resiliency Model Skills Trainers (PhilACTS), are working tirelessly to document instances of extrajudicial killings and provide human rights and trauma resiliency trainings to community leaders and members of civil society. President Trump’s actions over the weekend seriously undermine these efforts.

“Our partners, some of whom are risking their lives to empower and protect their communities, deserve better than an American president who fawns over authoritarianism and condones state-sanctioned murder,” said Michael Kourabas, UUSC’s Associate Director of Program & Partner Support, who recently visited the Philippines.

“President Trump’s invitation to Duterte is despicable and does not reflect the values of our country,” said former Congressman and UUSC’s President and CEO, Tom Andrews. “The United States must take a stand against power and oppression and protect the human rights and inherent dignity of all people.”

Legal Victory Should Be First Step Toward Expanding Sanctuary

UUSC applauds the decision of District Court Judge William Orrick last Tuesday to block the implementation of the Trump administration’s executive order to cut funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” nationwide. This preliminary injunction reaffirms the right of local governments to serve all their residents, regardless of immigration status, and to limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement programs like civil “detainers” that operate outside the court system and—frequently—in violation of the constitution itself.

However, this case also highlights the ways in which undocumented residents will continue to be at risk, even in so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions. The court’s decision may have found this particular executive order to be a blatant case of overreach, but it leaves many of the tools that the federal government can still use to compel local jurisdictions to share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) through the criminal justice system untouched. This continues to expose undocumented folks to the threat of raids and family separation. It therefore points to the need for “expanded sanctuary” policies that end mass arrest and over-policing, not just traditional sanctuary.

President Trump’s January 25 executive order on “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” was blatantly unlawful and unconstitutional from the start—especially in its threat to designate “sanctuary jurisdictions” as “not eligible to receive federal grants[.]” The District Court on Tuesday ruled that it is only Congress, not the President, who has the power to attach conditions to federal grant programs. Our democratic Constitution ensures that the legislative branch makes the law, not the dictates of one individual, and Judge Orrick observed in his ruling that Congress has repeatedly failed to pass legislation in recent years that targets sanctuary cities in ways similar to this executive order.

It is important to recognize, however, the limitations of what the courts alone can do to protect sanctuary policies. The ruling does not, for instance, remove the laws already on the books that compel cities to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement in other quite dangerous ways.

The three federal grant programs with immigration conditions already attached to them require local jurisdictions to share information with ICE about a person’s immigration status when detained. Because this part of federal law still stands, even so-called “sanctuary cities” must send the fingerprints of every person they arrest to a federal database that is shared with ICE. As San Francisco argued in its complaint in this case, this effectively “allows ICE to determine the immigration status of everyone in San Francisco custody.”

This means that under existing law, there are still serious limitations around how much a sanctuary city can protect its undocumented residents through purely immigration-related policies. As Albert Saint Jean from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) has put it, “ As an undocumented person, if you are arrested for jumping [a subway turnstile], that arrest means your fingerprints will be taken and given to a federal database and guess what—now ICE knows where to find you. This is the knowledge that facilitates ICE raids. All in a sanctuary city.”

This is one of the many reasons why “sanctuary” policies for one group of people will never suffice until we have expanded sanctuary for all. Undocumented people will never be protected from raids so long as our cities don’t also end racist and discriminatory law enforcement practices that expose certain communities to systematic mass arrest and mass incarceration.

Inspired and informed by the analysis of Mijente, BAJI, Black Youth Project 100, and other groups leading the front-line struggle against criminalization, the UUA and UUSC have joined together to launch the “Love Resists” campaign to stand in solidarity with the movement to expand sanctuary and end all policies that criminalize and stigmatize anyone in our communities.

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 we are highlighting the importance of intersectionality – and some various groups that are leading this charge!

Protest groups to unite as “The Majority” for massive actions across the country on May 1, Aaron Morrison, Mic, March 23, 2017

woman holding an american flag during a protest 

Over 50 partners, comprised of refugee, LGBTQ, Black, Latino, immigrants, and other minority groups are coming together from April to May to launch protests all across the United States. These groups, known as The Majority, are calling the April to May events “Beyond the Moment,” inspired by Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, in which he first addressed the importance of intersectional work rather than focusing only on civil rights.

Since the inauguration of Trump, there have been weekly protests around indigenous rights, climate change, women’s rights, refugee and immigrant rights, and other issues. The Majority emphasizes that supporters of the “Beyond the Moment” movement think and go beyond this  current administration in order to effect lasting change.

Among some of the groups that make up The Majority are Mijente and Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, UUSC partners doing amazing work.

Arab Americans lead the charge for US civil liberties, Massoud Hayoun, Al Jazeera, March 20, 2017

Arab American community leaders are working with other minority groups that are being threatened by the current administration. The working-class, people of color, women, and other groups are showing a united front in the midst of increasing threats and violence. Leaders in the Arab American community understand that social justice must be won in unity with other oppressed groups, as the struggles in one group are linked with another.

Trump’s presidency has stressed the need and importance of deepening and strengthening intersectional work. The administration has brought to light a history of this kind of work. One of several examples of intersectional work highlighted in this article is the work of Arab American Action Network (AAAN) in Chicago, an organization that works on racial profiling. AAAN works closely with teachers unions to make schools sanctuary schools for both undocumented and Black students.

As Rashad al-Dabbagh, founding director of Arab American Civic Council, a UUSC partner, states, “There’s no way we’d be able to survive without unity. That’s why it’s important to work together with all of our communities – Latinos, Asians, LGBT groups, African Americans, Indigenous peoples. Our struggles are linked. Right now, we’re at a point in history where we cannot afford to work alone.”

Read more about UUSC’s work with Arab American Civic Council here.

Texas UU coalition fights bills hostile to immigrants and transgender people, Elaine McArdle, UU World, March 28, 2017

Last February, on Legislative Action Day, 240 Unitarian Universalists from Texas met with legislators to advocate for reproductive, immigrant, refugee, and economic justice. This event was organized by Texas UU Justice Ministry (TXUUJM), a UUSC partner that organizes a statewide network of UU congregations.

One of the actions was to oppose a Sanctuary City Bill, which would affect immigrant communities. TXUUJM has a longstanding history of working with immigrant communities. TJUUJM has also been working with the transgender community and is working against a bill that prevents transgender people from choosing which bathroom they prefer to use. UUSC is proud of the wide-ranging and intersectional work that TXUUJM and other Unitarian Universalists are doing in Texas.

A Win for Rights, But the Struggle Goes On

 

These rulings, like those that blocked the first order, come as a great relief to refugees, immigrants, Muslim Americans, and everyone who cares about our country’s values of individual rights and equal treatment.

Two key rulings by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland last week have temporarily halted the implementation of the President’s second attempt at a “travel ban”—widely referred to as the Muslim Ban 2.0. These rulings, like those that blocked the first order, come as a great relief to refugees, immigrants, Muslim Americans, and everyone who cares about our country’s values of individual rights and equal treatment.

Under these rulings, refugees in the United States will be able to reunite with their family members without fear of being denied a visa purely because of their nationality, people who have applied for third-country refugee processing in Costa Rica will no longer be stranded in limbo, and some refugee children in Central America who have already spent months or longer waiting in deadly conditions will again board flights to safety.

Too close for comfort

As crucial as these rulings were, however, they should never have been the only thing standing between people and the loss of their rights. The first ruling came down only a few hours before the ban was set to go into effect. Refugees, visa applicants, and nationals of six Muslim-majority countries were left staring down a precipice of possible family separation and years of processing delays up until the last minute. This was far too close a call.

Neither ruling offers permanent relief from these fears. They are both temporary restraining orders and could be lifted on appeal. The administration has already made clear its intent to fight the rulings, and Trump has suggested that he may return to the, even more discriminatory, version of the first order.

Moreover, the ban, even if permanently blocked, has already had a chilling effect on the lives and prospects of refugees. Since January, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stopped conducting new interviews with child refugees applying for the Central American Minors program (CAM), even though the executive orders were supposedly on hold. Asylum-seekers from Africa and the Middle East have been fleeing the United States for Canada in significant numbers, enduring a frigid and dangerous journey on their way, because of the U.S. government’s undisguised hostility to their rights. And none of these court rulings will affect the administration’s other executive orders and implementation guidelines that continue to target immigrants and asylum-seekers.

What did the courts decide?

In many ways, the refugee ban has been foiled so far because of the President’s own rhetoric. The courts did not have to look hard for evidence of discriminatory intent for the actions of this administration. In fact, they relied on the President’s campaign statements that he would seek “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and that “Islam hates us.” Both cited Trump’s comments in interviews that he only stopped referring to a Muslim ban in public because “[p]eople were so upset when I used the word Muslim” that he decided to “talk […] territory instead of Muslim.” Further, administration officials have been quoted stating that the second executive order was meant to accomplish the same purpose as the first, even as the first was under a nationwide injunction because of its discriminatory purpose.

The second version of the order claims it does not discriminate. Instead, it offers a “national security” rationale for the ban (one that did not appear anywhere in the text of the first version), and which administration officials were not able to supply when asked for it at trial. These are strong indicators that the national security argument was a mere pretext. In fact, Maryland District Court Judge Theodore Chuang found that national security was “not the primary purpose for the travel ban.”

The administration claimed that people who come from six conflict-ravaged nations—Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen—pose a greater terror risk than others. (They make no mention of the role the United States itself has recently played in conflicts in more than one of these countries.) The administration’s argument is not only belied by a recent DHS report which found that country of origin has little determination on whether someone is likely to commit violence. It is also a betrayal of our national promise, violating one of our most important social values: that people should not be judged based on where they come from, but rather as individuals with worth and dignity.

One order down – an entire political agenda to go

The executive orders are so extreme that they may not survive the legal challenges ahead. However, the courts on their own will not be able to forestall every piece of a larger xenophobic agenda. There are signs, for instance, that the administration could still suspend the refugee program even if the rest of the executive order is not allowed to stand. The Maryland court, for one, while blocking portions of the executive order, did not extend its ruling to cover the refugee program. This choice is difficult to understand, given that the assault on the program was motivated by the same anti-Muslim bias (nearly half of refugees currently entering the United States are Muslim, and the vast majority coming from the same Muslim-majority countries targeted in the order).

UUSC will remain vigilant in the months ahead and pick up the work of resistance wherever other remedies are insufficient. Our organization was born out of the struggles of refugees and victims of persecution during World War II and we will continue to speak out against the politics of hate and all efforts to unwind the moral consensus that has emerged since those years. UUSC is in solidarity with all marginalized communities as we struggle for greater recognition of human rights.