By Josh Leach on August 13, 2020
Welcome to our recurring feature on the UUSC blog. Each week, we will review key policy developments affecting UUSC’s human rights goals and our partners. This includes a look at recent Congressional negotiations, legislation moving on Capitol Hill, new regulations and other forms of executive action. We pay special attention to places where UUSC and our partners are having an impact—and where our members can play a key role in making progress happen. Check back each week for fresh updates.
#FreeThemAll and stop the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons: This week the Love Resists campaign, a joint initiative of UUSC and the UUA, sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, calling on the agency to adhere to public health guidelines by immediately releasing qualified federal prisoners from custody. For people held in unsanitary congregate settings around the country, the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in prison is a matter of life-and-death. This menace is all the more grave for people with preexisting health conditions. Nonetheless, the Justice Department has been slow to ensure the release of people at risk, despite the availability of home confinement programs and other alternatives to prison. As a result, thousands remain exposed to danger. UUSC’s letter draws special attention to the case of Michael Markus, also known as Rattler—an Oglala Lakota tribal member and armed services veteran sentenced for his role as a water protector in the #NoDAPL protest movement. Rattler described in a recent interview the unsanitary conditions in which he and other prisoners are confined, saying “We are a tinderbox waiting for a spark.” No one deserves to be jailed for protesting injustice; and no one deserves to die of a disease outbreak in the custody of our government. BOP, ICE, and other federal agencies should act now to release qualifying people from prisons, jails, detention centers, and other congregate settings. More than 500 faith leaders, professionals, and institutions from many traditions signed onto the Love Resists letter in support of these urgent demands.
Remind me how to spell… “hypocrisy”? At the same time the Trump administration has failed to slow the spread of COVID-19 by promptly freeing people from federal custody, they are meanwhile invoking the danger of the pandemic as an excuse to deprive asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children of their legal rights. August 10 marked the end of the public comment period for the administration’s latest anti-asylum regulation, which would allow executive agencies to bar people from two life-saving forms of humanitarian relief (asylum and “withholding of removal”) on public health grounds, no matter how serious and urgent their protection needs might be. We are grateful for the thousands of members of the public who took the time to oppose this deeply harmful proposed rule, which risks sending people back to places where they face imminent persecution and death. It is dismaying, however, that the administration granted just over 30 days to comment on the rule—roughly half the time typically offered for a major regulation (let alone one carrying life-or-death consequences for thousands of people and tampering with crucial legal rights vouchsafed by Congress). Moreover, the rule was published directly on the heels of another regulatory overhaul of asylum, leaving advocates little time to organize and respond. Nonetheless, UUSC submitted a public comment on August 10, calling on the administration to withdraw this dangerous rule in its entirety.
But sadly, that’s not all: As we discussed last week, these two proposed regulations come on top of another order that has already been in effect at the border since March, which has made any form of humanitarian protection virtually inaccessible for people arriving in search of asylum. Once again invoking the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse, the administration is overriding domestic and international law by expelling asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children without any due process or screening for protection needs. This means that instead of turning unaccompanied children over to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, as it is obliged to do, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has set up an ad hoc system of undisclosed locations—mostly at hotels in Texas and Arizona—where they are holding children prior to expulsion without access to counsel or other legal protections. This week, we learned crucial new details about the program, thanks to reporting by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune. Among other things, this story revealed that DHS is refusing access to due process even after children test negative for COVID-19. This provides strong evidence that the administration’s stated “public health” rationale for the expulsions is pretextual. As we have long argued, these cruel and unlawful policies have nothing to do with slowing the spread of COVID-19; they are really an attempt to push through by fiat this administration’s long-standing goal of banning immigrants of color and throwing out the asylum laws passed by Congress.
Speaking of COVID-19… After allowing expanded unemployment benefits to lapse for millions of people, Congress has still failed to agree to another round of pandemic relief spending. The result is that critical economic lifelines have been cut off for innumerable individuals. Indigenous, rural, subsistence, and working class communities remain unshielded from the disproportionate risk of utility shutoffs, evictions, or foreclosures. Taxpaying immigrants and U.S. citizens in mixed-status families—who were shut out of relief payments under the CARES Act—have still not seen relief in any form. Meanwhile, the legally dubious executive orders announced by Trump succeed only in undermining Congressional negotiations without providing real or lasting support to any families. The consequences of these delays for human rights in the United States—including access to sanitation, water, housing, and other basic resources—are catastrophic. UUSC calls on the Senate to take up and pass the HEROES Act or similar measures which include all members of our community, halt utility shut-offs, and fund the expansion of clean drinking water, broadband access, and other resources that are particularly needed during a pandemic.
And there’s more on the way: In the coming weeks, we anticipate a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering whether or not to leave an injunction in place against Trump’s cancellation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for hundreds of thousands of immigrants. For decades, this program shielded people from deportation to countries that were judged too dangerous to receive them. If Trump’s termination is allowed to go into effect, people who have spent years building lives and raising families in the United States could suddenly lose legal status. Meanwhile: more than 250,000 U.S. citizens have at least one parent who’s a TPS holder; thus, the end of the program would also result in a new family separation crisis. We call on the Ninth Circuit to uphold the injunction barring the termination of TPS. Whichever way the judges decide, however, Congress alone has the power to grant TPS families permanent relief from possible deportation and separation. We need the Senate to take up the Dream and Promise Act, long since approved in the House, and create a path to permanent residency for long-term TPS holders in the United States.
About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!
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