Deadly Earthquake in Afghanistan Magnifies Gender Apartheid Under Taliban Control

by Delisha Valacheril
Image 1. Afghan Man standing in the rumble caused by an earthquake. Source: Flickr
Image 1. Afghan Man standing in the rumble caused by an earthquake. Source: Flickr

The ongoing humanitarian crises as a result of the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, regaining control of Afghanistan have been exacerbated since the devasting earthquake hit the country, with women and children bearing the brunt of the struggle. The Herat province has been shaken by two 6.3-magnitude earthquakes in just five days, with at least 1,482 people killed, another 2,100 have been injured, and an estimated 114,000 people need humanitarian assistance. The detrimental aftermath has been felt by everyone in the country, especially women and children, since they encompass 90% of those killed. With homes demolished and livelihoods lost, obtaining humanitarian aid is of the utmost importance. However, women across the country are struggling to gain assistance due to the numerous human rights violations against them in Afghanistan. Women and children are the most affected when natural disasters strike, but they are often the least considered in the response and recovery process. With the death toll mainly comprised of this vulnerable population coupled with the existing humanitarian crises, the situation in Afghanistan is grave for the young women and children survivors.

Image 2 Afghani Women fully covered in accordance with Taliban rule. Source Flickr.
Image 2 Afghani Women fully covered in accordance with Taliban rule. Source Flickr.

Humanitarian Crisis

It is not just women who are suffering under Taliban rule; everyone is. The UNDP reports that the Taliban’s rule has also erased the Afghans’ standards of life. Since the takeover, the economy has collapsed by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. Over 90% of people have experienced food insecurity in one way or another. The situation in Afghanistan remains precarious and uncertain, and the earthquake has only exacerbated this.

To provide context for the Taliban’s gender apartheid in Afghanistan, a proper foundation must be laid. In 2021, after the US withdrew troops from Afghanistan, the extremist group rose to power and established itself as the sole authority. Since resuming their regime, they have implemented restrictive, discriminatory practices against women. Women have been banned from attending and tutoring at universities, women cannot work, and most girls cannot attend secondary school. These Taliban-imposed constraints have left women and girls increasingly confined to their homes, which is why they suffered the most from the natural disaster. Even when women are allowed to go outside, they must comply with the strictly enforced dress code that requires them to be fully covered, and on top of that, they must be accompanied by a male chaperone.

Image 3 Children in a refuge shelter in Afghanistan. Source Flickr.
Image 3 Children in a refuge shelter in Afghanistan. Source Flickr.

What’s Currently Going On

Considering the plight women have to endure under this restrictive government, it has been extremely difficult for aid to reach these vulnerable communities. An obstacle women must overcome to get relief is they must have a male relative’s tazkera, a national identity card. Since there is an absence of women working at the distribution center, many women cannot obtain humanitarian aid if they don’t have male relatives who can access it on their behalf. They also need to adorn the Islamic hijab so they can dress appropriately to access services and relief. This natural disaster has decimated homes, destroyed families, and left many to grieve their loss alone. How can the government discriminate and impose restrictions on who can receive aid in a time of crisis? After losing their husbands, fathers, and sons to this calamity, what are women supposed to do? Is there life meaningless without a male associated with it? Are they not worthy of aid from Afghanistan’s government?

Sonita Bahram, who is part of a team providing medical assistance to survivors, recounts the hardships women have had to withstand during these trying times. “I saw dozens of women and girls each day, and I can tell you that 99.9% of them were suffering from some sort of psychological trauma,” she said. Bahram narrates how women who have lost their homes, some of them their entire families, now have to work together to exist. Survivors seek refuge in the sea of tents that now stand in the rubble of Afghanistan’s towns and cities. Women are tying tattered blankets and even their headscarves to construct some semblance of privacy. On top of the mental stress and trauma that these women have had to endure from their daily home lives, these devasting earthquakes add significantly to their worries.

Significance

Conflict, food insecurity, drought, displacement, and poverty were already prevalent among the women and children of Afghanistan, but since the deadly earthquake, the government has continued to marginalize this group. The obstacles Afghani women have to overcome to receive aid are egregious; the treatment of women survivors has been abysmal, and they make up the majority of the fatalities. The humanitarian crisis involving women’s rights has been festering for a long time in the country, but this catastrophe has only inflated the concerns and hardships of the minority group. The severity of this issue has reached a global extent, with international relief centers and governments limiting humanitarian help to Afghanistan since the Taliban took power because of the government’s flagrant breaches of human rights, especially those committed against women and girls. This is harmful to the women and children of Afghanistan because they are the ones in dire need. It is important to support and donate to NGOs that are providing aid. UNICEF has launched a $20 million appeal to support 96,000 children affected by the earthquake. Life USA is pledging funds to provide emergency relief to the survivors. 2023 Afghanistan Earthquake Relief is also a great organization committed to doing beneficial work. By supporting these organizations, we can help the women and children of Afghanistan even if their government chooses not to.

 

 

Southern Prisons in the U.S.

by Abigail Shumate

Prisons, Historically

A quick Google search of “Alabama prison news now” will lead you to hundreds of articles detailing brutal and entirely unnecessary deaths of Alabama inmates. This is not exclusive to Alabama, it’s a trend you can find amongst most other southern states, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana. The UAB Institute for Human Rights already has several fantastic blog posts focusing on the injustices in Alabama prisons. Where this post differentiates from the others is in its focus on southern prisons as a whole, as well as worker’s rights within those prisons.

If you look at our country’s constitution, the 13th amendment states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duty convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” While this amendment, along with the 14th and 15th, expanded the rights of Black Americans, the italicized portion is a perfect display of how the rights of this population are frequently given with conditions. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this does not just affect Black Americans; however, it’s vital to note that this group is disproportionately incarcerated. For example, in the southern United States, Black Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated in state prisons than their white counterparts. In states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and North and South Carolina, African Americans make up 38% of the population, but 67% of the incarcerated population.

Photo of a beige building with high walls, at the top of the walls are fences with barbed wire.
Photo of a beige building with high walls, at the top of the walls are fences with barbed wire. Source: Flickr

 

Within the Walls

Southern prisons and jails are notorious for being some of the worst in the country, with excessive violence and incredibly poor conditions. Southern prisons are grossly understaffed, and this leads to the intense mistreatment of incarcerated individuals. One example of this is this uncurbed time in solitary confinement. In Alabama, individuals can be placed in solitary confinement for “weeks or months at a time”, and because of understaffing they are denied their basic rights, such as showering. The overuse of solitary confinement is not uncommon in southern jails and prisons, and Black people deal with the brunt of this. Incarcerated Black individuals are eight times as likely to be put in solitary confinement and ten times more likely to be held in solitary confinement for excessive periods of time. Solitary confinement has intense physical and mental implications, and it can cause lasting damage to individuals kept alone for extended periods of time. The suicide rate for individuals kept in solitary confinement is needlessly high; in Georgia, for example, there were nine deaths by suicide from just February to April 2022. Similar to the usage of solitary confinement, in South Carolina there have been multiple extended lockdown periods, both before and during the pandemic. These extended lockdowns are the result of staffing shortages, which is a common theme in many southern prisons. One individual in a North Carolina Prison was forced to spend nine years in solitary confinement, and after their release they stated, “I feel like I am losing touch with reality…I feel helpless and abandoned, which makes me angry.”

Photo of a prison from within a cell. The walls, bars, and floors are various shades of beige.
Photo of a prison from within a cell. The walls, bars, and floors are various shades of beige. Source: Flickr

While the prison system exposes people to uncountable horrors, one that has intense financial consequences is the extensive use of unpaid or underpaid labor. Worker’s rights laws in the United States don’t apply to those who are incarcerated—incarcerated workers have no right to form unions either, so they are unable to fight for improved conditions or pay. For most jobs, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and more pay nothing for the labor, and if they do pay, it’s only cents per hour. Legally, incarcerated individuals can earn five cents a day. Turning the focus back to Black Americans, many are forced into work that can easily trigger generational trauma—required to work in fields, picking fruit and cotton (further reading on this can be found in the works of Dr. Joy DeGruy). The low wages combined with the undesirable jobs could incentive states to keep people imprisoned and working, so that they are better able to profit from of the tangible goods that incarcerated individuals are producing. Portions of payment are fed back into the state, or into the companies that are leasing the incarcerated.

Photo of a green field with rows of crops. There are large, brown trees in the background.
Photo of a green field with rows of crops. There are large, brown trees in the background. Source: Flickr

Permanent Impacts

The financial detriment that is forced on the imprisoned is not limited to their time in jail. Ex-convicts are treated as second-class citizens, and they often have an incredibly hard time getting jobs after their time in the prison system. At least 27% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed—which is all the more shocking when you learn this rate is higher than the unemployment rate during the Great Depression. As a reminder, the unemployment rate only includes people who are actively looking for work, so this reinforces how challenging it is for previously incarcerated individuals to support themselves after returning to the general public. This difficulty perpetuates a cycle that can be hard to break—without employment, individuals must deal with less stability and surety, and this can result in them returning to prison or jail.

Impoverished individuals are more likely to commit crimes, and, unfortunately, the jobs that are open for previously incarcerated individuals often leave them below the poverty line. This claim is not unaffected by race, as white men are the most likely to be employed full-time after imprisonment, and Black women are least likely to be employed full-time. This relates back up to previous discussion in the post, and incarceration heavily impacts minority races, and it affects them much more after their time in prison.

Conclusion

The Southern incarceration system presents challenges that can seem insurmountable; however, with appropriate attention and legislative power, positive change can be made for both current inmates and those who were previously incarcerated. One effective measure that can be taken is to Ban the Box. The Ban the Box Campaign advocates for the removal of the question “Have you ever been convicted?” from job applications, housing applications, and more. This limits employers’ and loan distributors’ ability to discriminate against individuals when making hiring or other decisions.

There are also major structural changes that need to be made, including increasing pay for prison labor, improving living conditions within prisons, and limiting the time given in solitary confinement. It is important to recognize that incarcerated individuals are people too, and that they deserve the same rights awarded to everyone in the Constitution.

 

The State of Gun Violence in the United States

by Caitlin Cerillo

An image that depicts a person holding a gun. Three angles of the world are shown next to it with a red circle over the United States. This depicts gun violence as a serious issue in the United States.
An image that depicts a person holding a gun. Three angles of the world are shown next to it with a red circle over the United States. This depicts gun violence as a serious issue in the United States. Source: Yahoo Images

Gun violence has always posed a serious threat in the United States. Gun violence can come in many forms, such as homicides, suicides, accidental shootings, mass shootings, and more. It is important to notice that this blog will be about gun violence in the context of the United States. Recent decades have seen a significant spike in acts of gun violence, particularly mass shootings. Although a universally agreed-upon definition of what exactly constitutes a mass shooting does not exist, it generally entails around a minimum of four individuals being shot and/or killed. This does not have to include the perpetrator.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, well over 600 mass shootings occurred in 2023 alone. These shootings result in the lives of innocent individuals being taken, as they can occur in a wide range of places. These include places of worship (like synagogues and churches), concerts, movie theaters, grocery stores, educational institutions, parades, sports events, and more. Just six years ago, the deadliest mass shooting in United States history occurred at a country music festival in Las Vegas. This resulted in the death of 60 people and over 400 injured.

While I have not been directly affected by a mass shooting, I vividly remember hearing about mass shootings in schools since I was in elementary school. The first one was the shooting that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. A few days after the shooting, I remember my fourth-grade teacher speaking to us about the precautions our class would have to take in the event we were to encounter an active shooter in our school. In 2018, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting occurred when I was in 10th grade. I remember being afraid to go to school the next day. Since then, mass shootings have continued to happen each day, where innocent lives have been taken. People should not have to fear going to school, practicing in places of worship, seeing a movie in a theater, attending their favorite artists’ shows, or going to the grocery store. They should not have to plan places to hide in the event of an active shooter. This poses a number of important questions: Why is gun violence, specifically mass shootings, such a huge problem in the United States? What does this mean for United States citizens’ safety? What can be done and has been done to prevent these acts of terror?

The U.S. in Relation to Other Developed Countries

The context of mass shootings in relation to other countries is important to take into consideration when understanding the significance of this issue. In comparison to other developed countries, which are defined as states with a high Human Development Index (HDI), the United States surpasses all of them regarding the occurrence of mass shootings. According to data retrieved by Jason R. Silva from William Paterson University, “the US is the only developed country where mass shootings have happened every single year for the past 20 years.” Silva is an assistant professor in Sociology and Criminal Justice with a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice. He specializes in the area of mass shootings, media and its relation to crime, and violence in educational institutions. To find his data, Silva uses the same general definition of mass shootings mentioned earlier in this article: a minimum of four individuals either shot or injured, not including the shooter.

One of the leading causes of the United States’ high rates of mass shootings compared to other countries could be the relaxed gun laws and policies—or lack thereof. Gun control has become a heated topic of discussion among United States citizens, and the debate regarding its effectiveness has gained traction due to the heightened occurrences of mass shootings. Gun control can come in many forms, like the outright ban of specific gun models like the AR-15 and other assault-style weapons, the implementation of universal background checks, safe storage laws, or stronger requirements for those who want to purchase guns. Gun control does not necessarily mean that all guns will be eradicated from the country, which is a popular assumption among opponents of gun control.

Opponents of gun control and regulation also argue that it would violate the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees the “right to bear arms.” The Second Amendment possesses some relevant historical context, as it was originally intended to grant United States citizens the Constitutional right to form “a well-regulated militia” to protect their communities during the Revolutionary War. However, the context of society has changed. These state militias—while still existing in some states—do not serve the same purpose they did centuries ago. Proponents, on the other hand, assert that the protection of the Second Amendment comes at the cost of protecting people from senseless acts of gun violence.

A group of demonstrators at a March for Our Lives rally advocating for gun reform in June 2022.
A group of demonstrators at a March for Our Lives rally advocating for gun reform in June 2022. Source: Yahoo Images

The Role of Gun Culture

United States gun culture can also be a contributing factor to the nation’s ever-growing rise in mass shootings and gun violence. “Gun culture” refers to the specific attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and feelings that society (or any social group) possesses regarding firearms. The term was first coined by Richard Hofstadter in 1970, who published an article titled “America (United States) as a Gun Culture,” which critiqued the country’s normalization and glorification of guns. This article was far ahead of its time, and I recommend giving it a read if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the United States’ gun culture.

In the article, Hofstadter talks about the historical context of the United States’ fascination with guns. It began as early as the Revolutionary War when the Pennsylvania rifle was used by British troops. Since then, guns have become integrated into everyday life, from hunting for food to entertainment and sport. Even in modern popular culture, the depiction of guns is typically associated with famous characters like James Bond, John Wick, and “Maverick” from Top Gun. Toy guns are constantly advertised to young children—particularly young boys—as a way to establish their “masculinity.” Additionally, video games glamorizing gun violence have amassed popularity among young people. While these examples are not the sole reason gun violence has taken a toll on the country, it’s important to note their contribution to the overall gun culture in the United States.

Last semester, I took a course on Human Rights taught by Dr. Greenstein, an assistant professor in UAB’s department of Political Science and Public Administration. We had the option to create a project pertaining to any topic regarding human rights. As the issue of gun violence is a direct violation of human rights in a multitude of ways, I chose to create a photo collage depicting the sensationalizing of firearms. I intentionally used one method of finding photos for the collage to further drive the point that gun sensationalism is extremely prevalent. To no surprise, all I had to do was walk into Walmart, where I found a whole section of firearm magazines. Each of the magazines portrayed the firearms in ways that one may find appealing, with eye-catching text, edited graphics, depictions of guns with the United States flag, and more. This shows that the sale of firearms is a lucrative business, willing to draw anyone into purchasing them.

This image depicts a photo collage made from magazine clippings. "GUNS" in big, yellow letters appear along with numerous photos of firearms.
The collage I created for a Human Rights course I took last semester shows the heavy marketing perpetuated by the gun industry. This contributes to the spread of gun culture. Source: Caitlin Cerillo

Through these examples, it can be seen why guns are normalized in our country and how they can influence the number of devastating acts caused by firearms. For this reason, steps should be taken to diminish its weight. An article by the National Library of Medicine that echoes this same sentiment urges pushing a narrative that “frames gun violence as a public health issue that has consequences on the health of the general population.” The article also mentions the importance of public advocacy through movements such as March for Our Lives, which was founded in the wake of the 2018 school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida. March for Our Lives has advocated for the end of gun violence through protests, marches, public demonstrations, and more.

Progress in Tackling Gun Violence 

While gun violence and the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States continue to be a huge problem, positive strides have been made to reduce it. September 2023 saw the country’s first Office of Gun Violence Prevention, established by the Biden administration. In October 2021, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was proposed, and by June 2022, it was signed into law by President Biden. The act aims to prevent gun violence by:

1) Offering mental health resources and guidance to state governments and schools so that mental health services are available in educational settings.

2) Implementing new gun control laws like extended background checks, implementing stricter punishments for the traffic of illegal firearms, etc.

3) Preventing funds from being used improperly and towards the provision of firearms and dangerous weapons.

President Joe Biden announced the Office of Gun Violence Prevention in September 2023, alongside Florida Congressman Maxwell Frost and Vice President Kamala Harris.
President Joe Biden announcing the Office of Gun Violence Prevention in September 2023, alongside Florida Congressman Maxwell Frost and Vice President Kamala Harris. Source: Yahoo Images

Through the establishment of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, the Biden administration hopes to expand upon the progress made towards preventing gun violence, like the passing of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. As of January 25, 2024, the Biden administration has announced new initiatives to promote the safe storage of firearms. Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona have worked together to spread awareness about how important safe storage is, especially because most firearms—approximately 76%—used in school shootings are acquired from the shooter’s home.

Modern American Slavery: Forced Prison Labor

by James DeLano

Historical Slavery in the United States 

Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

At least, that is what I was taught in high school: slavery ended in 1865 with the 13th Amendment. What was not taught was the century and a half of forced labor since then, predicated on an intentional loophole in the 13th Amendment. Activists were active in their denouncement of and work towards ending this system over a century ago, and not much has changed since. 

That loophole was not the only way slavery persisted. Chattel slavery, slavery as it existed in the South prior to 1865, existed in the United States until at least 1963. Mae Louise Walls Miller grew up in rural Louisiana, where she and her family were enslaved. They were freed in 1963, when she was only 14 years old. Her family, possibly the last chattel slaves in the United States, were freed after President Biden graduated high school. This was not an isolated instance; this form of slavery existed in scattered patches across the rural South for decades after the end of the Civil War. 

In this post, I will illustrate how forced prison labor continues to maintain slavery in the United States.The convict leasing system, where people convicted of crimes are “leased” to companies to perform hard labor, started in Alabama in 1846, and their prevalence exploded after the 13th Amendment abolished what was previously the most common form of forced labor. This system was incredibly dangerous; in 1874, a typical death rate was one-third of people working on railroads. A contemporary prison official said that “if tombstones were erected over the graves of all the convicts who fell either by the bullet of the overseer or his guards during the construction of one of the railroads, it would be one continuous graveyard from one end to the other.” Elsewhere, between 1888 and 1896, over 400 people died of tuberculosis contracted while working in Sloss Steel and Iron Company mines. 

Many of those arrested and convicted during this system were sentenced under questionable circumstances. One common situation was being arrested for riding a train without a ticket “by a man who is paid $2 for every person he arrests upon that charge.” After accounting for inflation, $2 in 1907 would be worth over $65 today.

Convicts being forced to work under a convict leasing program in Florida. Source: Yahoo Images
Convicts being forced to work under a convict leasing program in Florida. Source: Yahoo Images

 

Between 1880 and 1900, this system profited over $1,134,107 in saved labor costs, which would be worth nearly $40,000,000 today. It profited $1,322,279 between 1900 and 1906. Alabama banned this method of forced labor in 1928.

Modern American Slavery 

The United States has maintained both the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world and the highest prison population for several years. Two-thirds of inmates in American prisons are also workers in both private-sector and public-sector jobs. Alabama convicts on work-release programs are allegedly paid just over $2 per day.

 

Alabama did not stop using forced prison labor in 1928. A lawsuit was filed in December 2023 alleging gross mistreatment, violations of both the United States and Alabama Constitutions, and instances of retaliation against a convict on work-release due to reporting of sexual harassment. It alleges dangerous working conditions; in August, two convicts were killed while working as part of a road crew. It alleges the intentional violation of parole guidelines in order to continue the system of forced labor as it currently exists in prisons. It also repeats accusations of negligence in regard to healthcare. Antonio Arez Smith was released last year in “excruciating pain” due to untreated cancer. He died four days after his release. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) stopped releasing inmate death statistics in October after years of increasing rates. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 64% of incarcerated people being forced to work felt unsafe while doing so, and 70% did not receive job training. None of what I have mentioned above is considered enough of a crime to warrant consequences. 

Workers’ protections do not apply to incarcerated people, including minimum wage laws, unionization, and any assurance of workplace safety. None of this should be surprising knowing the text of the 13th Amendment; incarceration is explicitly listed as an exception to the abolishment of slavery, and slaves are not permitted rights. 

A black incarcerated woman sewing with a Department of Corrections label behind her. Source: Yahoo Images
A black incarcerated woman sewing with a Department of Corrections label behind her. Source: Yahoo Images

This form of forced labor is ubiquitous. The lawsuit previously mentioned lists as defendants companies that have become household names: McDonald’s and the parent companies of Wendy’s, KFC, and Burger King. Elsewhere, well-known companies use prison labor as a cost-cutting measure: Amazon, AT&T, Home Depot, FedEx, Lockheed-Martin, and Coca-Cola, as well as thousands more nationwide. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections reported generating over $48,000,000 in 2021, and received hundreds of millions of dollars more from other sources. Most of that was directly appropriated from the state, but it also included federal funding intended for COVID relief. The total sum diverted into the Department of Corrections was $400,000,000, or about one-fifth of the total relief funds. The Treasury Department describes the funds as “support[ing] families and businesses struggling with [the pandemic’s] public health and economic impacts.” Instead of spending it on struggling Alabamians and small Alabama businesses, the state spent its funds on building new prisons despite us already having one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. 

What is Being Done 

The Alabama Department of Corrections is involved in several lawsuits related to alleged misconduct. The aforementioned lawsuit, Council v. Ivey, has a hearing scheduled for February 8th. ADOC is involved in several other lawsuits and has been for decades; Braggs v. Dunn was filed in late 2014 over neglect and remains unresolved, as does a Department of Justice lawsuit filed in late 2020 over critical understaffing. The new Alabama constitution, voted on in 2022, changed the text’s phrasing of its prohibition of slavery. Prior to that vote, it read, “no form of slavery shall exist in this State; and there shall not be any involuntary servitude, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted.” The equivalent section now readsThat no form of slavery shall exist in this state; and there shall not be any involuntary servitude.” In addition, Congresswoman Nikema Williams and Senators Jeff Merkley and Cory Booker have proposed the federal “Abolition Amendment,” intended to close the prison labor loophole. 

Nationally, prison reform is a coordinated movement. Numerous organizations focusing on prison reform generally also have efforts in place to reform or abolish forced prison labor. I have used sources from the Equal Justice Initiative and the American Civil Liberties Union in this piece. The lawsuits mentioned were filed by current and former Alabama inmates, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Disability Advocacy Program, and the U.S. Department of Justice. Of those, only Council v. Ivey directly addresses forced labor; the others work towards improving prison conditions more broadly but still contribute to the common goal of reforming prisons.

The Politicization of Immigration and the Notion of Invasion: Human Rights Violations on the US-Mexico Border

 

by Lexie Woolums

Trigger Warning: This post discusses immigration, including physical barriers for migrants. The article includes a discussion of some drownings and other instances of death.

 

Broadly speaking, migration is not a new concept. The United States was built by people who were not from here, including people who were forced to come here through enslavement and others who were violently moved against their will through the relocation of indigenous peoples on the Trail of Tears. There have been different waves of immigration, where different crises from around the world prompted people to come to the United States seeking better opportunities.

For example, from 1845 to 1855, around 1.5 million Irish people settled in the United States due to potato blight combined with Britain’s colonial control that forced available crops to be exported out of Ireland. More recently, the US has admitted nearly 300,000 Ukrainians since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. There are many more examples of this, from Italian immigrants moving to the US in search of economic opportunities around the turn of the twentieth century to the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants after World War II due to economic depression in Puerto Rico, cheaper air travel, and job opportunities in the US.

A black and white photo of men wearing clothing from the early 1900s. The men are carrying suit cases and standing in a line at Ellis Island after arriving in the US.
Figure 1: Immigrants at Ellis Island c. 1900, Source: Yahoo Images

It’s no secret that not all migrants are treated the same—a concept that Danah Dibb previously wrote about on the blog. Additionally, my colleague, Kala Bhattar, wrote an article that discusses two specific scenarios that effectively demonstrate how politicized immigration has become in the US—one with Governor Greg Abbott of Texas sending busloads of migrants to Vice President Harris’s neighborhood and one with Governor Ron Desantis of Florida sending planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts—scenarios that in any other context would be considered human trafficking.

 

Politicization of Immigration in the US

According to a 2023 Gallup poll, the percentage of people who want immigration to decrease peaked in the mid-nineties with 65 percent of Americans against immigration. In a near all-time low, this number was 31 percent in 2018. Today, that percentage lies around 41 percent—an increase from 2018 but much lower than it was at its peak and still a minority of the polled population.

For much of the 1990s, both major political parties shared similar views on immigration (though they may have disagreed on the way to do things), but that started to change around 2006 and has become much wider today. Today a Democrat is twice as likely to share the view that immigrants strengthen the economy compared to a Republican.

Various presidencies have highlighted different aspects of immigration in the United States, but it has become a topic that is far more divisive in the wake of the Trump Administration. Former President Trump’s stance on immigration was well-known and relatively simple—build a wall to prevent illegal immigration. He favored a policy of “busing and dumping” immigrants to states that had pro-immigration policies; additionally, he also made comments about securing the border from “rapists and criminals” despite the fact that first-generation immigrants are predisposed to lower crime rates than native-born Americans. Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump became known to make off-the-cuff remarks—especially about immigration—that were frequently called out for being racist and xenophobic.

As the President of a free country that is as powerful as the United States, having views like this stirred uneasiness across the United States, especially among minority populations. This rhetoric of invasion is not new, but it does fuel extremism and racism.

 

Operation Lone Star

Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021, shortly after President Biden took office. Governor Abbot has sent state troopers and members of the National Guard to the US-Mexico border as a part of the operation. Additionally, the Rio Grande River has been lined with various obstacles, from shipping containers to concertina wire. This is all under what is known as Operation Lone Star, which is a multibillion-dollar operation to mitigate illegal immigration and smuggling at the US-Mexico border. According to the Operation Lone Star website, the agency fills in the Biden Administration’s “dangerous gaps [due to its] refusal to secure the border.” It also regularly buses migrants to sanctuary cities.

Governor Abbott has coined the situation at the US-Mexico Border an “invasion,” which he claims allows him to invoke the invasion clauses in the Texas and US Constitutions. Through this rationale, he has the authority to defend the border through his own policies, even though immigration policy has been under the jurisdiction of the federal government since the 2012 landmark case of United States v Arizona. Human rights advocates have warned of the danger of referring to the border as an invasion since most migrants are seeking to claim refugee legal status and are not attacking the United States in any sense. University of Texas law professor Barabara Hines called this notion of invasion “unprecedented and extreme.” Additionally, Operation Lone Star is under investigation by the Department of Justice to determine if it violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. More specifically, the department is investigating if the state agency is subjecting individuals to “differential and unlawful conditions of confinement based on their perceived or actual race or national origin.”

Four men in military uniforms stand with another man wearing a maroon button down.
Figure 2: Members of the Texas Military Forces pose for a picture with representatives of the Remote Area Medical Foundation, Source: Yahoo Images

The Rio Grande River serves as a natural boundary between the United States and Mexico. Over the summer, national attention was brought to Texas when Governor Abbott announced that the agency would be implementing a 1,000-foot-long string of buoys with serrated blades in between them, with a mesh net that would connect them to below the surface. More specifically, the Texan government stated that they were installing the “new floating marine barriers along the Rio Grande River in Eagle Pass” in an effort to “help deter illegal immigrants attempting to make the dangerous river crossing into Texas.”

 

Human Rights Concerns

According to the Texas Department of Security, there has been at least one body found caught on the Southern side of the buoys, but they claimed that this body was initially upstream of the floating device and floated into it. Later, the body of a 20-year-old Honduran man was recovered, but it was reportedly upstream of the floating device.

Human rights groups have criticized the floatation device with concerns about humanitarian hazards such as migrants becoming caught in the device or drowning due to its placement. Even without the floatation buoy, crossing the border is extremely dangerous. Even before this barrier was implemented, migrant deaths on the US-Mexico border have hit an all-time high. In the 2022 fiscal year alone, over 800 migrants died trying to cross the US-Mexico border, largely from drownings. This stretch of the border is so dangerous that the United Nations migration agency declared the US-Mexico border as the deadliest land border in the world.

Beyond the buoys, numerous reported human rights concerns with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) exist. According to a 2023 report by WOLA, the Washington Office on Latin America, migrants are frequently treated poorly by CBP, which is the largest law enforcement agency in the US. One of the cases in the report is about an 8-year-old Panamanian girl named Anadith Danay Reyes Alvarez, who died in custody of CBP because she was denied a critical heart medication. Specifically, the report notes that this death was preventable.

Engraved sign on a concrete building that reads " U.S. Customs and Border Protection."
Figure 3: US Customs and Border Patrol Building in Washington, DC, Source: Yahoo Images

Another issue is that accountability for CBP officers is extremely rare. The same report states, “Most of the cases … would have gone completely unknown without reporting from victims and those, outside of government, who accompany them. That such abuses are happening so frequently at CBP and Border Patrol indicates that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) accountability system has done little to dissuade or disincentivize them.” A 2023 study found that 95 percent of complaints from 2010-2022 did not have a proper investigation.

In addition to the numerous reported concerns of CBP abuses, CBP followed a Congressional policy change in September 2021, which means that the agency only reports the deaths of people who died while in CBP custody. Though this change may not necessarily be bad, it is concerning when there are reports of CBP officers lying to migrants about where to go since this puts them at a higher risk of sickness or death that would not be counted in the CBP reports under the new policy (if the person is no longer in CBP custody when they die).

The US CBP came out with a policy known as “prevention through deterrence” in 1994. This policy sought to block popular crossing spots and push migrants into the dangerous areas of the sea and river crossings.  In theory, this would show migrants how dangerous the crossing is so that if they are caught and sent back (which often happens when migrants cross illegally), they would not attempt to cross again. However, it is no secret that this strategy is not effective in reducing the number of crossings. According to an article by the London School of Economics, this approach has not been effective in limiting the number of migrants seeking to enter the US but has increased the number of fatalities.

A view of a bluish green river stretching through the desert. Mountains are present in the background. The shore of the river is mostly sand, with some short green shrubbery present.
Figure 4: A Portion of The Rio Grande River in Texas. Source: Yahoo Images

Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has condemned Operation Lone Star’s instructions for Texas officials to push young children and nursing mothers back into the Rio Grande. According to the article, Texas uses harmful techniques like razor wire, even after children have been injured and one woman miscarried while stuck in the wire.

Sarah Mehta, ACLU senior border policy counsel, stated, “Texas must immediately stop intentionally endangering the lives of migrants seeking protection at the border. The federal government must also act by investigating these damning allegations and by the Department of Homeland Security decisively ending its own collusion with Operation Lone Star, which has facilitated and encouraged Texas’s expansion of a proven human and civil rights disaster.”

 

Federal Response

The Biden Administration has criticized this, citing the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899, which prevents the “creation of any obstruction not affirmatively authorized by Congress, to the navigable capacity of any of the waters of the United States.” This act gives the Army Corps of Engineers authority to regulate all navigable waters through permitting. The federal lawsuit against Texas also alleges they did not get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before placing the barrier on the river.

The federal government initially asked Texas officials to remove the barriers. Governor Abbott replied in a letter that stated, “Texas will see you in court, Mr. President,” implying that Texas would not remove the buoys without legal action. Subsequently, the Department of Justice sued Texas and asked a judge to make Texas remove the buoys.

US-Mexico border coordinator Hillary Quam expressed concern in an affidavit that accompanied the request to a federal judge to have the barriers removed: “If the barrier is not removed expeditiously, its presence will have an adverse impact on U.S. foreign policy, including our relationship with the government of Mexico.”

The request of the federal government was granted by Federal District Judge David A. Ezra, who ruled that Texas must remove the floating barriers. Legally speaking, he issued a preliminary injunction, which preserves the status quo until final judgment (the final ruling of the court). In essence, this meant that the buoys would need to be removed until the case reached its final court decision. Ezra stated the following in the discussion: “Governor Abbott announced that he was not ‘asking for permission’ for Operation Lone Star, the anti-immigration program under which Texas constructed the floating barrier. Unfortunately for Texas, permission is exactly what federal law requires before installing obstructions in the nation’s navigable waters.”

Governor Abbott’s office appealed this ruling, stating that Texas “is prepared to take this fight all the way to the Supreme Court.” The federal appeals court granted the request to halt the temporary injunction, but a hearing date has not been set, so the floating barrier remains in the Rio Grande until a further decision is made.

 

Mexican Response

The Mexican government has criticized the placement of these buoys, claiming that the placement is a violation of their sovereignty. More specifically, they have referenced that the presence of these buoys violates the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944.

Regarding the bodies, the Mexican government issued the following statement: “We express our concern about the impact on the human rights and personal safety of migrants that these state policies will have, which run counter to the close collaboration between our country and the federal government of the United States.”

A spokesperson for Governor Abbott claimed that the Mexican government was “flat-out wrong,” stating that neither body was attempting to cross the floating barriers.

 

Conclusion

It has been over 40 years since Congress reformed the US immigration system. According to the Center for American Progress, putting undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship would increase the US GDP by $1.7 trillion over the next decade. According to the Pew Research Center, immigrant families are expected to comprise 88 percent of the US population growth through 2065. To say that reform is necessary is an understatement.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, migration is not a new concept. Unfortunately, it has been used as a political pawn in many ways. From the rhetoric of dangerous crime to the mentality that immigrants “take all the jobs,” misunderstanding has been weaponized against groups of people for a long time, and that likely will not change until we learn to be more compassionate and think of better solutions for our broken immigration system.

A group of protesters standing with a large red sign. The sign reads "New Yorkers for Real Immigration Reform." Underneath, it says "Citizenship Now! Keep Families Together! Protect Workers! Safeguard Civil Rights!"
Figure 5: Protesters in New York City. Source: Yahoo Images.

Additionally, it is important to be critical of political officials who weaponize differences and prey on misunderstanding to further their own political agenda. To label such a diverse group as one negative thing that threatens the authority and safety of the United States is not only racist and xenophobic, but it undermines the value of the diverse groups of people who built this country (including the people who were forced to migrate to and build this country, whose impact often goes unrecognized even today). This portrayal minimizes the value of people with diverse experiences and limits the discussion of how crucial immigrants have been and continue to be in the US.

It is also imperative to recognize how slavery, forced assimilation, and genocide have both formed the social hierarchy we have today and continue to perpetuate racism, especially in the context of immigration. If you have not heard of the concept of “passport privilege” (including simply having a passport) or the connotative distinction between the words immigrant and expatriate or expat (not just their dictionary definitions), I highly recommend learning these concepts. It is important to examine where you fit within them, and which preconceived (perhaps racist) notions you might carry about a person based on job, skin color, accent, religion, or anything else.

Society will not change unless individual people change, so even if there is limited direct political action to take as of right now, there is still a lot of room to grow your understanding of these concepts so that racist institutions can be better understood and effectively dismantled.

The Indigenous Justice System: Over-incarceration of Indigenous People and the Need for Cultural Humility

by Eva Pechtl

To better understand the value of culturally centered practices in Indigenous justice, I encourage you to read my previous blog, “History of Limitations and Restorative Justice.” In this blog, I will be highlighting the resulting statistics on the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons. Then, utilizing reports from several justice-oriented organizations, I will summarize how professionals from Indigenous communities conclude problems and solutions that need to be addressed to neutralize these disparities in the Indigenous criminal justice system. 

 

Serious complaints arose around a decade ago about the food quality of the catering hired by the provincial Saskatchewan government.
An image of a man in adult provincial custody in Saskatchewan, Canada, looking out of his cell with his arms between the cell bars. The data on the overrepresentation index for Indigenous people in 2020/2021 was highest in Saskatchewan at 17.7 times higher than the non-Indigenous incarcerated population (Statistics Canada, 2023). Image Source: Don Healy/Regina Leader-Post via Yahoo Images

 

Visualizing the Statistics 

Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system across several countries, including the United States, Canada, and Australia. Extensive research has been conducted by human rights organizations around the world, but collecting accurate data on Native populations in the United States has proven difficult. The visibility of crime has come a long way since the Not Invisible Act of 2019 was signed into law in 2020 to increase information sharing and track cases of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) crisis. However, data on Indigenous populations is still flawed in some ways. According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) and a report by the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), categorizing people by a single race can wrongfully categorize people who identify with more than one race. The data that does exist is inconsistently labeled, meaning it could refer to Native people as Indian, American Indian-Alaska Native, Latino, or other. The number of incarcerated Indigenous people depends on how they are counted, and this generally underreports and, therefore, overlooks Native people in the system.  

According to the PPI, the data shows that Indigenous people are incarcerated in federal and state prisons at over four times the rate of white people. In the state prison systems of Alaska, South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Utah, Indigenous people are highly overrepresented relative to the states’ Indigenous populations. The SJC report shows that in Montana, the Indigenous population is 7% but closer to 30% of the prison population. In South Dakota, Indigenous people convicted for aggravated assault received sentences 62% longer on average than any other racial group. 

 

Jurisdiction’s Impact 

Over-incarceration of Native Americans published by the SJC highlights complicated jurisdiction as a player toward overrepresentation. According to Indigenous experiences documented in the report, it is common for single crimes to be charged in more than one jurisdiction because of multiple police agencies patrolling reservation lands. Defendants may then face multiple charges with different requirements, which often results in punishment for failing to understand and/or follow those requirements. This is especially true for youth caught up in technical violations of probation or status offenses. 

A document titled Juvenile Justice, created by the National Congress of American Indians, speaks to the challenges of Indigenous youth in the justice system. Native youth are more likely to be subjected to the federal system and to be tried as adults, especially for drug-related crimes, leaving them with longer and harsher sentences.  

In Baytown, Texas, Olivia B. was arrested for a fight, expelled from her high school, and charged as an adult in court.
An image of a young girl being addressed by a judge in court beside her mother. The court proceedings for her misdemeanors, being charged as an adult, made it difficult for her to find employment and delayed her career goals of becoming a Psychologist (Open Society Foundations). Image Source: Michael Stravado/Redux via Yahoo Images

The federal system is not built for children, and sentencing often limits opportunities for diversion, parole, or services helpful in juvenile cases. Even if certain courts offer other options, youth are too often left with no support. Due to overlapping jurisdiction, professionals tend to assume that Indigenous youth will always be someone else’s responsibility. However, Tribal governments are often not informed when their youth interact with the state juvenile justice systems, and this prevents tribes from supporting reintegration and rehabilitation before, during, and after contact with the system. 

On the other hand, when Native children experience a culturally rooted court system like those of tribal courts and jails, they can have a better chance of receiving constructive intervention and support. For example, the Cherokee Talking Circle integrates Keetoowah-Cherokee cultural values that target substance use among youth. According to the Juvenile Justice document, researchers found that non-cultural education programs were significantly less effective in reducing juvenile delinquency compared to CTC. The Choctaw culture includes the practice of Immannumpuli, where an uncle or tribal court employee will educate youth offenders about the Choctaw justice system and talk to them about their life choices. Increasing collaboration between federal and tribal justice agencies to encourage US Attorneys to deter offenders to tribal court would be extremely beneficial for Native youth. 

 

Causes and Solutions 

The criminal justice system ultimately reflects an overreliance on locking people up, specifically Indigenous people, rather than offering services to rehabilitate offenders. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics displayed that in Indigenous areas specifically, the creation of more jails resulted in a direct increase in incarceration rates instead of being a remedy for overcrowding. As expected, the jail expansion also led to longer stays for both pretrial detention and actual sentencing.  

Especially in Indigenous communities, incarceration has harmful effects on health, as jails are not prepared to navigate chronic illnesses and are commonly dangerous environments. Incarceration is harmful to maintaining or finding employment, and this causes more poverty and debt among Indigenous individuals. Currently, because of high incarceration rates and a lack of restorative methods, many Indigenous people will be returning to their communities with significant challenges. Assisted reintegration is vital to the healing process needed after incarceration. 

The SJC report recognizes the long history of forced confinement of Indigenous people as a contributor to systemic inequities faced today. In the past and still today, disparities in justice are falsely attributed to the characteristics of Indigenous people rather than the more real factors of complex jurisdiction, deficiency of representation in court, racism, or violence. This is why legal professionals must consider the historical context of Indigenous trauma when analyzing current inequities.  

According to the SJC report, Tribal leaders have called for culturally relative alternative sentencing options that look to the roots of the crime problem. 15-16% of people in tribal jails were held for public intoxication or drug-related offenses, leading the Indian Law and Order Commission to state that drug abuse was a contributor to almost all crimes in Indian communities. Considering the serious financial and health effects of drugs, any efforts to prevent crime and recidivism would absolutely need to address substance use problems. 

Cultural Humility 

A reporter hears the story of an Indigenous man for the Intercontinental Cry report.
An image of a reporter listening to an Indigenous man, centering their focus on under-reported stories concerning Indigenous human rights. Image Source: Intercontinental Cry via Yahoo Images

 

Finally, the SJC report recognizes cultural humility as a necessary factor in supporting Indigenous communities. Practicing cultural humility means acknowledging your own inability to be an expert in a different culture. The disparities in representation in the criminal justice system can improve if non-Indigenous criminal justice professionals seek to understand that there is a lot they are not aware of concerning Indigenous experiences.  

Tribal agencies and activists across the United States have called for changes to be made, whether it is about legal jurisdiction, inadequate funding, or over-incarceration rates. Acknowledging the barriers that Indigenous communities and individuals face is a first step in creating cultural safety. Indigenous people are the best suited to handle justice and related problems facing their communities. It is time to listen to them. 

What Can We Do? 

To learn more about practices supporting native people, I encourage you to explore the lessons and solutions listed in the Over Incarceration of Native People. The document includes diverse proposals ranging from supporting Tribal Reentry programs, trauma-informed care, providing cultural mentoring, license restoration, victim assistance, housing, mental health services, and, most importantly, culturally relevant research and services. Juvenile Justice includes many evidence-based policy recommendations to change the status quo for Indigenous youth, helping them and their families to be better informed, tracked, assessed, represented, and treated. To find relevant services or contribute to their success, Tribal Justice also lists many resources and specified programs. 

Signs reading "Justice for Colten," "Indigenous Lives Matter," and "Murder is murder, lock him up!" advocate for justice for Colton Boushie, shot by farmer Gerald Stanley.
An image of a protest for Indigenous Justice In Canada in response to the shooting death of Colton Boushie and the acquittal of Gerald Stanley. Image Source: The Canadian Press/Jason Franson via Yahoo Images

In this series, I have reiterated many of the issues at the tip of the iceberg, but to continue supporting Native people, we must be able to acknowledge our ignorance of the rest of the iceberg that is the Native experience. With cultural humility in mind, we can work to unveil injustice in the Indigenous Justice System. 

 

Tragic Killing of a Corporal and the Urgent Need to End Female Genital Mutilation

by Grace Ndanu

The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011.
The Kenya Girls Guide Association hosted a rally against FGM during 16 Days of Activism in 2011. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma on December 15, 2023, in Elgeyo Marakwet County, Kenya, has brought to light the deeply entrenched issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) and the urgent need for increased awareness and action to eliminate this harmful practice. The tragic incident, where Corporal Boma was stoned to death by a mob of young men after rescuing a group of girls who had been forced to undergo FGM, signifies a significant setback in the fight against this violation of human rights in Kenya.

Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is a harmful practice and a violation of the rights of girls and women. It can lead to severe physical, emotional, and psychological consequences, including but not limited to severe bleeding, infections, complications during childbirth, and long-term psychological trauma. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified FGM into four types, with type 3 being the most severe, involving the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching of the vaginal opening.

According to reports, the incident involving the Corporal occurred when the police were taking the rescued girls to the hospital after the illegal FGM procedure. It is a grim reminder of the challenges faced by law enforcement officers and activists in combating such deeply rooted harmful practices. Despite the ban on FGM in Kenya, the practice still persists in certain areas, often conducted during school holidays, using crude methods and tools by individuals who continue to defy the law.

It is essential to understand that the practice of FGM is not limited to Kenya but is prevalent in many African countries, as well as in some parts of Asia and the Middle East. The complexity of cultural, social, and traditional beliefs and practices surrounding FGM makes the fight against it particularly challenging.

An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images
An infographic on FGM, including information about how many girls and women are impacted by it, is practiced in over 30 different countries around the world. Source: Yahoo Images

In the wake of Corporal Boma’s tragic killing, there is an urgent need for heightened awareness and education about the dangers of FGM. The involvement of communities, religious leaders, and other stakeholders is crucial in effectively addressing and eliminating this harmful practice. There is a pressing need for community-based interventions focused on education, awareness, and empowering women and girls.

Furthermore, it is imperative for the Kenyan government and other relevant authorities to take decisive action and strengthen the enforcement of laws against FGM. Perpetrators of FGM must be brought to justice to send a clear message that this harmful practice will not be tolerated in any form. The government should collaborate closely with local organizations and international partners to develop and implement comprehensive strategies to combat FGM effectively.

The media can play a pivotal role in raising awareness about FGM and shaping public opinion on the issue. Media campaigns and educational programs can provide crucial information on the physical and psychological consequences of FGM, dispel myths and misconceptions, and promote positive social norms around the issue. Additionally, the media can highlight success stories of communities that have abandoned the practice of FGM, inspiring others to follow suit.

At the global level, the international community plays a vital role in supporting efforts to combat FGM. International organizations, including the United Nations and its specialized agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, have been advocating for the elimination of FGM through various programs and initiatives. These efforts range from providing direct assistance to affected communities, conducting research and data collection, advocating for policy changes, and supporting grassroots organizations working at the local level.

Some resources laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM.
Some resources are laid out for community members to learn about the dangers of FGM. It includes pamphlets, brochures, and a 3D model used to teach about different types of FGM. Source: Yahoo Images

The killing of Corporal Mushote Boma serves as a stark reminder of the urgent action needed to eliminate the harmful practice of female genital mutilation. It is crucial to work collectively to raise awareness, educate communities, and enforce laws to protect the rights of girls and women. This tragic incident must galvanize individuals, communities, and governments to address FGM comprehensively and put an end to this barbaric practice.

The world must unite to protect the rights and well-being of girls and women globally and ensure that no one else suffers the same fate as Corporal Mushote Boma. By fostering a culture of respect for human rights and gender equality and by promoting positive social norms and behaviors, we can strive to create a world where every girl and woman has the right to live free from the fear and trauma of female genital mutilation. Together, we can work towards a future where every girl and woman can fulfill her potential without being subjected to the physical and emotional pain of FGM.

The tragic killing of Corporal Boma is a solemn call to action, and it must be responded to with determination, compassion, and unwavering commitment to bringing an end to the harmful practice of female genital mutilation once and for all.

The Indigenous Justice System: How Underfunding is Failing Tribal Police

by Eva Pechtl

For a better understanding of the information you will encounter in this blog, it may be valuable to read part one of my series on the Indigenous Justice System, History of Limitations and Restorative Justice,” on the legal jurisdiction of Indigenous authorities and the traditional forms of justice in many Indigenous communities. In this blog, I will expand on the struggles of Indigenous communities due to insufficient federal funding. Multiple Indigenous tribes are suing the federal government for violating treaty obligations to provide adequate funding for law enforcement and justice services on reservations.  

An image of an old U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs police badge. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr              
An image of an old U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs police badge. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr          

 

Tribes like the Oglala Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne are suing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which operates 23 police agencies out of 258 official tribal law enforcement entities. The BIA’s Office of Justice Services is responsible for ensuring public safety and justice across Indigenous communities with a proposed 2024 budget of 641.8 million for Public Safety and Justice operations. Under section (900.33) of Public Law 93-638, proposals by agencies outside of the BIA must be reviewed by declination criteria under Subpart (E) and can be declined. Under section (900.31), tribes are entitled to appeal such decline of a proposal and can sue if they wish to challenge the decision.  

The findings of U.S. Code Title 25 Section 3601 state that “tribal justice systems are inadequately funded, and the lack of adequate funding impairs their operation.” There are 234 tribally operated law enforcement agencies; however, the BIA allocates more funding to the minority of agencies that are operated internally. Indigenous communities deserve well-prepared protection from law enforcement, but they are currently faced with battles they cannot win because of this disparity in resources. 

 

Agencies Bound to Crumble 

In a Senate roundtable discussion on Public Safety in Native Communities, several Indigenous speakers spoke about problems surrounding law enforcement in their communities. Tribal police Chief Michael Ford from the Reno-Sparks Indian colony expressed the challenges of keeping tribal officers when external wages are more competitive. Chief Ford explained that after years of training, tribal officers consider better positions for themselves and their families, making it difficult to build trusting relationships with community members and to have experienced officers capable of addressing serious issues. Similarly, Alex Cleghorn, Senior Legal and Policy Director at the Alaska Native Justice Center, explains how the competitiveness of grant processes and the non-guarantee of funding makes it difficult to have continuity in services. This causes challenges for Tribal law enforcement programs and deprives them of a chance to grow consistently or make positive impacts. These are examples of issues generated due to the lack of funding for police services and its effects on failing to adequately support tribal police. 

An image of a student and Tribal instructor training in a firearms proficiency session. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr
An image of a student and Tribal instructor training in a firearms proficiency session. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr

Executive Director of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Lucy Simpson, comments on the effects of the lack of trust in police in Indigenous communities. Strong negative perceptions of law enforcement are present in Indigenous communities following consistent delays in services or instances of abuse by officers. Police abusing their power mixed with low expectations of law enforcement cause both a lack of reporting and of prospective police officers. This weakens the legitimacy of tribal police departments and perpetuates cycles of crime in Indigenous communities. When crimes aren’t reported or followed up on, it’s difficult for tribal police to maintain statistical information that is needed to handle crime reliably. Insufficient resources over time do not only prevent tribal police from effectively responding, but they preserve cycles of criminal behavior and negative police relations. 

 

Jeopardizing Indigenous Community Safety 

In a podcast made this summer by Native America Calling, the President of the Fort Belknap community, Jeffrey Stiffarm, says, “The community knows when there is only one person on staff.” Stiffarm said that drug pushers would make prank calls about domestic violence incidents, knowingly distracting the officer toward a remote end of the reservation while they make a shipment. This is not only dangerous for the community but also for the officers, who often have no choice but to arrive at dangerous calls alone. 

An image of a police car for the Nooksack Indian Tribe in Washington. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr
An image of a police car for the Nooksack Indian Tribe in Washington. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr

 

What Stiffarm found particularly frustrating was how the BIA funds departments that are not run by tribes at double or triple the amount. In Fort Belknap, the Chief of Police, criminal investigator, and four dispatchers are paid half the amount of BIA salaries for the same duties, and the tribal officers are paid 70%. Gary Lamere, a supervisory criminal investigator also from Fort Belknap, further exhibited this disparity when he recalled working for the BIA-run law enforcement on the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico, which had significantly more funds. He argues that with over $2 million for personnel alone, his patrol officers could be proactive, unlike in Fort Belknap, where the entire department has received $1.2 million for all services and is constantly fighting to catch up with crime.  

In the Native America Calling podcast, criminal investigator John Grinsell from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation says that the BIA closed the local jail and moved it 50 miles away with the promise of offering rehabilitation programs. However, the programs never showed, and the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes are only allowed 50 beds each out of the 400 beds in the facility. When there is an overflow in the facilities, offenders are transported to Oklahoma, where, if they are released, they often must wait for the monthly transportation services to transfer them back to their community. There is generally high frustration among Indigenous communities about the extended periods it takes for law enforcement officers to respond, often reaching an hour and a half. Furthermore, tribal police often must follow up on crimes without proper compensation when the BIA’s operations fail to follow up. Recently, in the Northern Cheyenne community, arson of a local thrift store was never followed up on, according to Grinsell.  

 

Constantly Running Behind 

When asked in the podcast what he knows about any tribes that are adequately funded, Stiffarm notes tribes like the Crow, which use money from their natural resources to fund their own programs. However, most reservations have been stripped of natural resources like coal and oil, leaving them with minimized opportunities to raise funds for themselves. For centuries, Indigenous people have been stolen from, wrongfully, and not reimbursed fully enough to escape the poverty that ensues. 

Geno LeValdo, a tribal council member in Fort Belknap, comments in the podcast that “no one cares about our communities as we do” and spoke to the BIA’s blatant rejection of pleas for funding. Frankly, the perception among Indigenous communities is that no one cares. A caller on the podcast from Fort Berthold in North Dakota argues that Indigenous people need representatives in Congress who are ready to listen to tribal members. Furthermore, they need Indigenous advocates who will advocate, not just fill a diversity spot. 

President Biden has made tremendous changes, which he highlighted in his Proclamation on National Native American Heritage Month, including appointing many Indigenous people in his administration. His changes are positive, but they are not as impactful as Biden implied, according to Indigenous leaders still dealing with serious issues facing their communities. Biden’s budget for 2023 allocated $2.8 billion to the BIA, with $562.1 million designated for Public Safety and Justice operations. Indigenous leaders wonder about the specific destination of the funds, as they are well aware they are not being allocated towards their services. 

Legislation deemed more highly supported by Indigenous people is the Parity for Tribal Law Enforcement Act, a bill introduced by Dan Newhouse in July 2023. It aims to address the barriers limiting tribal law enforcement by offering measurable steps to improve the hiring and retention of tribal officers. Again, Indigenous leaders are the ones who truly know what they need. Federal funding is a complicated process, but there is no reason to doubt and reject Indigenous calls for help.  

Inequalities in America’s Foster Care System

by Caitlin Cerillo

This picture shows a child pulling a suitcase and standing on top of a cliff-like figure, which depicts the harsh reality of children being relocated in the foster care system.
This picture shows a child pulling a suitcase and standing on top of a cliff-like figure, which depicts the harsh reality of children being relocated in the foster care system. Source: Yahoo Images

Common Misconceptions

Foster care is typically seen as a temporary living arrangement for children who are vulnerable due to circumstances like conflict in the family or home or until they are permanently adopted into a family. However, this is not the case for the hundreds of thousands currently living in the system in the United States. The average amount of time a child stays in the foster care system is just over a year and a half, with about 30% remaining in the system past two years. Many are awaiting being reunited safely with their biological parents or a relative, as their reasoning for being put in the system could have been due to anything from a parent being hospitalized to a death in the family.

On the other hand, many do not have parents or family members that they can be reunited with. Many children in foster care are subject to harsh living conditions, being moved and relocated multiple times during their time in the system, aging out, and the heightened risks of experiencing abuse and malnutrition, just to name a few. Each of these conditions can be extremely harmful to one’s mental and physical well-being. An estimated 50% of young people in the system possess a higher likelihood, 2.5%, of developing mental health disorders compared to their non-involved counterparts. Intersections of race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and more play a significant role in the experiences someone in the system may face, which will be discussed in this article.

Overrepresentation in Foster Care

One glaring issue regarding the United States foster care system includes the overrepresentation of children of color. Specifically, Black children are among one of the most overrepresented racial groups in the American foster care system. This poses a problem because Black children represent 23% of the foster care population yet only makeup 14% of the general population in regard to children, according to KIDS Count.

This can be attributed to the social and economic disparities that Black families face. Intersections between race and socioeconomic status contribute to the hardships many Black Americans face, such as barriers created by systemic racism and economic inequality that put them on unequal footing. Systemic racism—also referred to as institutionalized racism—means that practices and behaviors that uphold white supremacy are instilled in all aspects of society. Just to name a few, systemic racism can appear in healthcare, educational, criminal justice, and economic systems. Systemic racism has caused Black Americans to face inequalities when it comes to accessing quality education, equal job opportunities, and housing, which all play a role in overrepresentation in the foster care system. Due to these circumstances, Black children may be more likely to be placed into foster care.

Social workers are professionals whose role is to promote social welfare, advocate for disadvantaged populations, and aid people in overcoming the challenges they are going through. Foster care social workers deal with ensuring the well-being of individuals in foster care by conducting home visits, monitoring the health, security, and academic performance of the child, and consulting with other professionals the child may interact with, such as counselors, teachers, and medical professionals.

Implicit biases are preconceived notions that one can have towards a specific group, which affects the ways in which they interact and view that group. Unfortunately, implicit biases that can be held by social workers have also been attributed to the overrepresentation of Black children. These biases can have an influence on how the social worker may handle cases and lead to disproportionate numbers of Black families being investigated and, as a result, becoming involved in the foster care system.

So, what can be done to correct the implicit biases that may exist among foster care social workers? Implementing diversity within the hiring process can ensure an inclusive environment, which can challenge potential implicit biases. Similarly, policies that ensure inclusivity can foster a proactive decision-making process when dealing with biases. Implicit bias training could also be helpful and open the conversation to important topics like the importance of cultural competence, the impact of stereotypes and microaggressions, intersectionality, and ways to recognize and address implicit biases.

Overcrowding in the System

This picture shows a young girl holding a sign with the words "I've been in foster care for 1015 days..."
This picture shows a young girl holding a sign with the words “I’ve been in foster care for 1015 days…” Many children will stay in the system for over two years while awaiting permanent adoption. Source: Yahoo Images

While the number of children in the system has decreased within the last two decades, there are still hundreds of thousands of children who will likely age out. As a foster care child gets older, their likelihood of being adopted into a family decreases. Younger children are more desired among prospective families, with children who are nine or older being much less likely to be adopted, according to the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

An effect of overcrowding is aging out, which occurs when a foster care child turns 18 when they are “emancipated” or no longer granted the protections and resources given to them by the system. Over 23,000 young people age out annually in the United States, which can cause them to be homeless, less likely to have access to educational resources, and often have problems with the transition to adulthood. Additionally, they may become more predisposed to a higher risk of substance abuse and teen pregnancy

This infographic shows various statistics pertaining the circumstances of young people who age out of the foster care system.
Statistics on young people who age out in the foster care system, provided by National Foster Youth Institute. Source: Yahoo Images

Addressing the problem of overcrowding requires several actions: policy changes and reform, improvements in the system as a whole, and public awareness and advocacy. Allocating appropriate funds to the child welfare and foster care system can ensure equal access to mental health services, supply improved technological systems to keep accurate and efficient data, and offer support services for foster parents. Each of these can benefit all entities involved. Public awareness of the system’s overcrowding issue can help recruit more prospective foster families and individuals seeking to permanently adopt a child.

The Connection Between Abortion Bans and the Foster Care System

In June 2022, Americans saw an overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. Roe v. Wade was a landmark decision passed in 1973, which essentially granted the right to abortion across the country. The 2022 decision to strike down Roe v. Wade has had damaging effects on the already overcrowded foster care system. People who are pro-life and against the right to abortion will commonly use foster care as a proposed alternative to the abortion procedure. However, abortion restrictions have been found to cause a significant increase in the number of children who are put into the system, according to an analysis conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers. This results in more children having less of a chance of being adopted into permanent families and increases the number of people who will most likely age out in the system.

 

Poland: Human Rights Implications of the Recent Election

by Jillian Matthews

Poland is a highly polarized nation, with many valuing tradition, culture, and national identity. The combination of these three components, along with repeated rightwing electoral victories, has led to the democratic backsliding of the country, seen in their overreaching policies regarding women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and judicial reform. Although many human rights violations have happened throughout the country in the past few decades, the results from the most recent election, held on October 15, 2023, have the potential to expand rights to more citizens in the country. To properly describe its importance, I will explain the political context surrounding this recent election before moving on to discuss the future administration and its potential impacts on human rights.

Political Context

Even while under communist rule, Poland has been a predominantly Catholic state, with an overwhelming majority continuing to practice Catholicism today. Traditional Catholic values continue to influence Poland’s political policies and the opinions of many citizens. This influence is most notably seen in the rise of the Law and Justice Party (PiS), with its social policies rooted in Catholic norms and having close relations with the Catholic Church. Up until the October election, PiS controlled the government and had, since 2015, used its eight years of authority to undermine democracy and human rights. These influences have shaped the repressive policies on issues such as women’s autonomy, LGBTQ+ rights, and judicial practices. Listed below are the current status of these issues, showing the political climate leading into the 2023 election.

Women’s Bodily Autonomy

Under the current administration, abortion has continued to be a huge issue. While abortion was essentially banned in 1993, a 2020 amendment tightened restrictions even further. The recent change eliminated the option for abortion even when the fetus is known to have developmental problems or health conditions incompatible with life outside the womb. Prior to the ban, around 90% of all abortions performed in Poland happened for one of these two reasons: after 2020, women were required to carry even unviable pregnancies to term. While abortions are allowed when the life of the mother is threatened, this doesn’t mean that doctors will provide the necessary care. Countless stories have been recorded of Polish doctors overlooking women’s birth complications, favoring the life of the child, even when the child is unlikely to survive and the mother is likely to die or suffer lifelong complications.

Polish women protest for their bodily autonomy. Source: Yahoo Images
Polish women protest for their bodily autonomy. Source: Yahoo Images

In cases where an abortion is not deemed essential to save the life of the mother, doctors who carry out abortions are subject to punishment. If caught aiding an abortion, . This puts women and their doctors in a dangerous position, with women unable to access necessary help and doctors unable to provide adequate assistance without fear of imprisonment.

Not only is abortion increasingly difficult to obtain, but so is contraception. Out of all European countries, Poland ranked the lowest in terms of contraception access. For example, unlike in many European countries, Poland prohibits access to emergency birth control and hormonal birth control without a prescription. All of this shows the lack of women’s bodily autonomy, which can be interpreted as violating the human right to health and poses a threat to all women in Poland.

LGBTQ+ Rights

Those in the LGBTQ+ community face frequent discrimination and a lack of legal protections throughout Poland. Even since the adoption of the modern Polish Constitution in 1993, marriage is seen as proper only when between a man and a woman, meaning that gay couples receive no legal protections when married. Under PiS, steps were taken to further ensure traditional family norms, as seen with the party’s campaigning for a “family charter,” which sought to end marriage between gay couples and eliminate their ability to adopt children. This, along with a rising number of Polish cities that have decided to implement so-called “LGBT Ideology Free Zones,” has led to a climate that actively oppresses those within this community.

Polish citizens protest for the legalization of LGBTQ+ rights. Source: Creative Commons
Polish citizens protest for the legalization of LGBTQ+ rights. Source: Creative Commons

Throughout the European Union, Poland ranks the worst regarding LGBTQ+ rights, with only 15% of family, equality, and recognition rights being obtained. Unfortunately, activists cannot look to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) for assistance, as the document lacks protections on the basis of gender identity or sexuality. This omission of rights from the UDHR makes it nearly impossible for LGBTQ+ members to advocate for legal protections, having no doctrine to support their claims. Not only does this issue show that changes need to be made within Poland, but also the need to expand protections within the UDHR to provide a solid foundation for other advocacy groups worldwide.

Judicial Protections

Human rights concerns in Poland go beyond social issues; in fact, they bleed into the governmental structure itself. In 2019, a law was passed that undermined judicial independence, allowing the government to punish judges who question the legal changes made by PiS. This raised serious global concern, as this move would have allowed the executive branch to have control over the courts effectively, eliminating one of the greatest checks on executive and legislative power in Poland. This followed similar judicial changes that were ultimately made to serve the party. These changes included lowering the retirement age and appointing party loyalists to the Supreme Court. All of this led to the European Courts deeming these judicial revisions illegal in June 2023, making it an even more pressing issue leading into the latest election.

This infringement on the separation of powers causes a genuine and well-defined human rights violation, going against Article eight of the UDHR Article eight grants all humans the “right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals,” which is not available when the government has major authority over court cases.

The Recent Election

Given these issues and the increase in authoritarian policies, voters were aware that the 2023 election was extremely important, as seen in the voter turnout rate of about 73%, the highest rate since the fall of communism in 1989. Before explaining further, it’s important to note that Poland has a parliamentary government, meaning citizens’ votes are translated up to the legislature as a percentage of party representation. For example, if a party gained 30% of the total vote, they would receive that much representation in the legislature. This is necessary to know when understanding the outcome of the election.

Polish citizen votes in the election. Source: Yahoo Images
Polish citizen votes in the election. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The Results

The results are as follows: the Law and Justice Party (rightwing) received a plurality of the votes, at 35.4%, Civic Coalition (center-left) received 30.7%, Third Way Coalition (centrist) at 12.4%, and Lewica (far-left) at 8.6%. While PiS holds a plurality, the remaining parties will likely form a center-left coalition, which would oust PiS from power and install a new government with a pro-democracy, pro-human rights agenda.

Likely Impact

Given the percentage of seats held by rightwing versus leftwing and centrist parties, progressive parties will likely assume power and work to steer Poland back to valuing democratic ideals and aligning more closely with the European Union. The three parties that are expected to form the new Polish government all promote democracy and pro-Europeanism, making it likely that action will be taken to support the oppressed groups mentioned above. It is also more probable that European Court rulings regarding the judicial branch will be respected and upheld.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the 2023 election results hold great promise in regard to human rights in Poland. As the Law and Justice Party (PiS) loses its grip on the government, a center-left coalition will likely form and create an overwhelming majority. Although these results won’t be officialized until December, many believe rights will be expanded under the new regime, and Poland can set a precedent for a return to liberal democracy within Central Europe.