Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor: The U.S. Refugee Crisis

On Monday, November 12, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based, and law organizations at Birmingham-Southern College (BSC), titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 2: Focus on the United States. The panel discussion, moderated by Anne Ledvina ( Associate Director at BSC – Ellie and Herb Sklenar Center for International Programs), included Yanira Arias (Campaign Manager at Alianza Americas), April Jackson-McLennan (Attorney at The Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C.), Sarai Portillo (Executive Director at Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice), Roshell Rosales (Member at Adelante Alabama Worker Center), and Jessica Vosburgh (Executive Director at Adelante Alabama Worker Center), addressing the Central American migrant caravan, definitions of immigration law, and Alabama’s role in the current refugee crisis.

From left to right: Anne Ledvina, Jessica Vosburgh, Roshell Rosales, and April Jackson-MacLennan pictured on the discussion panel. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Arias and Portillo first addressed the audience by speaking about the recent events in Mexico City where many Central American caravan refugees were staying in a stadium serving as a makeshift camp. Here, many tenants camped on the field or slept on the bleachers, received medical attention and waited in line for basic resources, such as water, that had limited availability. Not only does Portillo assist migrants in her birthplace of Mexico but heads the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ACIJ), a grassroots network of six non-profit organizations and various individuals dedicated to protecting and advancing immigrant rights by developing leadership, aligning with other justice causes, encouraging civil participation, and advocating for just policies. Arias’ organization, Alianza Americas, which is a national network serving Latino communities, is currently facilitating donations for Central American caravan refugees through the Refuge for Families Campaign.

Vosburgh then initiated discussion around the narrow qualifications for refugee status and mentioned the disproportionate effects of being an LGBTQ refugee such as allocation to immigration facilities based on birth-assigned gender and sexual exploitation. Additionally, Vosburgh insisted the United States plays a unique role in creating refugees, namely through the war on drugs and neoliberal economic policies which perpetuate destabilization in the Global South. Vosburgh heads Adelante Alabama Worker Center, a Hoover-based organization dedicated to uniting low-wage and immigrant workers as well as their families for defending and promoting human, namely labor, rights in vulnerable communities. Adelante offers a myriad of programs, including the Accompaniment Program, which matches volunteers with community members to assist with transportation to court hearings as well as probation appointments, as well as English classes and legal representation. Additionally, Roshell Rosales, an Adelante member and Montevallo University sophomore, spoke about her experiences as a Dreamer, including scrutiny from law enforcement and the opportunity to earn a scholarship through The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!).

Jackson-McLennan elaborated on the services provided by The Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C., particularly their focus on affirmative asylum (obtaining asylum) and defensive asylum (defense against removal from U.S.) cases. Their services are salient to the region because not only is Alabama void of an immigration clinic, which often provide affordable legal services, but the political climate of the state often serves as a disadvantage to immigrants, speaking to the importance of their work. Also, due to predatory law practices in the Birmingham area, attorneys at John Charles Bell provide their immigration legal services on a low bono basis, meaning their assistance is accessible and affordable to potential clients.

Although these organizations do fascinating work to advance the rights of immigrants in the, every additional ally to the cause could be life-changing, whether it be through employment, housing, legal, or transportation assistance. Furthermore, our current political climate carries vestiges of anti-immigration efforts from the 20th Century when individuals and families, namely from the Jewish community, left their homes to escape conflict and faced persecution. As a result, more than 1,000 Central American refugees are at the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, facing law enforcement with tear gas, pleading for a chance at a better life. Such a crisis speaks to our moral compass, not only as a country but global community, whose Universal Declaration of Human Rights, via the United Nations, demonstrates that everyone has the freedom of movement within each state (Article 13) and a right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being (Article 25).

If you’re interested in participating in the advancement of immigrant rights, both locally and globally, please mark your calendar for March 4, 2019 for the third installment of this series which will be held at Samford University and focus on a community action plan. Please stay tuned for more details.

America’s Youngest Prisoners: Inhumanity of Family Detention

**As the US government flip-flops on its “zero-tolerance” Biblical mandated immigration policy that isn’t a policy but enforcement of the law, this repost, from this February, describes some of state-sanctioned child abuse and human rights violations experienced those seeking safety in “the land of the free and home of the brave.” You can read more information and some of the latest reports: here, here, here, including former first lady Laura Bush, and this video of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The United States has long been lauded as the land of the free. As Americans, we have a tendency to consider our country to be an almost utopian land, far removed from the bleak landscapes and brutal violence of foreign countries that appear on the news. However, this ethnocentric attitude blinds us to the human rights abuses that happen frequently within our borders. Family detention centers are one such environment where human rights are regularly violated. The United States has three remaining family detention centers, referred to as “baby jails” by dissidents. Family detention has dwindled over the years due to protest, but our government currently detains close to 3,000 non-criminal immigrant mothers and children in horrifying conditions.

A couple sits next to a large wall with graffiti saying "Freedom," and "Take down this wall!"
Yarl’s Wood Protest. Source: iDJ Photography, Creative Commons.

“We are not delinquents who should be imprisoned.” – Eleven-year-old girl on her detention at Berks County Residential Center

Of the three family detention centers that remain open, the South Texas Family Residential Center (Dilley, Texas) is by far the largest. The other two centers, Karnes County Detention Center (Karnes City, Texas) and Berks County Detention Center (Leesport, Pennsylvania), hold less than 700 detainees combined. Dilley, as it is known, has a capacity for 2,400 inmates and, as of 2015, holds over 1,000 children and around 750 mothers. The fifty acres of land that comprise the Dilley center are dotted with small, two-bedroom, one-bathroom cottages with no kitchen, no telephones, and hold up to eight people per house. Nights in all centers are punctuated with officials checking in by shining flashlights on the sleeping families every fifteen minutes, reportedly causing insomnia and anxiety for the children. Medical care is essentially non-existent, as individuals report that the available doctors often only advise mothers to give their children water for any sickness they might have instead of prescribing medicine. On-site doctors have prescribed water instead of medical care for broken fingers, conjunctivitis, and even for a child who vomited blood, according to detainee’s reports.

A young child in a pink dress has her fingers held by a white-sleeved hand for an examination.
The Touch of Hands. Source: Alex Priomos, Creative Commons.

 “Simply, they don’t care. What is more important for them is control. These are delicate situations when someone is sick and vulnerable. They just care about control. I thought I came to this country to escape abuse, mistreatment and disrespect. But it’s the same here.” – a detainee at the South Texas Family Residential Center

The conditions at these centers are incredibly dangerous for children and mothers. Many mothers at the center have already faced sexual assault, brutal violence, or threats of murder against them and their family. This would normally grant these families asylum status, which is a status granted to people who are unable to return to their home country for fear of persecution. Asylum status is granted partially on the basis of past abuse or violence enacted on a person by a foreign government, but trauma survivors often struggle sharing details that would ensure asylum. Most asylum hearings do not have childcare available, so mothers must choose between either sharing explicit traumas in front of their children in order to be granted asylum or minimizing their struggle to protect their children but be denied asylum. The conditions of the centers themselves also are fraught with abuse. An increase in violence in Central America has led to an influx of migrants from unstable countries; most of the detainees at detention centers are of Central or South American origin and predominantly speak Spanish. However, few staff members are fluent in Spanish and the subsequent miscommunication lead to abuse. The women are rarely allowed to speak on the phone, and it is next to impossible to obtain legal advice privately within the centers. This denies women the ability to detail abuses of the center without fear of retribution by the staff. Detainees have been raped and assaulted by guards without adequate punishment; in 2016, a guard was sentenced to less than two years in prison after being found guilty of institutionally raping a nineteen-year-old Honduran woman.

Additionally, the children are deeply at risk for developmental regression and major psychological trauma. According to a report by the child advocacy group First Focus, over half of all children in family detention centers are under the age of six. Children under six are undergoing crucial stages in their development, and can easily be traumatized for the rest of their lives if exposed to the stress of detention centers. Children who have been detained are shown to have increased psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, self-harming, and suicidal thoughts or actions. Even short durations of being detained can have the same impact of week-long detention on children. Mothers have frequently reported their children losing unhealthy amounts of weight quickly, but doctors reportedly overlook the weight loss by claiming that the children are simply not used to the food or even claiming that they are bulimic. Children have been forced to sleep in rooms with non-related adults, creating a vulnerable situation that puts children at risk for sexual assault. At a now-closed center, kids as young as eighteen months were made to wear prison jumpsuits and expected to sleep in locked rooms with open-air toilets. Though the detention center where this occurred was shut down several years ago, similar abuses that display a blatant disregard for immigrant’s human rights have occurred in all family detention centers.

A crowd of people appear to be yelling as they hold signs that say "Close Karnes."
“Karnes Petition Delivery.” Source: WeAreUltraViolet, Creative Commons.

The overwhelming issue is that there is no legislation that ensures appropriate standards for immigrant detention. Management is left to the private companies who own the centers, and the desire for profit often overwhelms the adherence to ethical treatment. GEO Group, the company who runs Karnes, received $161 million in taxpayer dollars in 2015 from their contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Dilley, run by CoreCivic, generates 14% of the company’s income each year, despite owning seventy-four other prison centers– CoreCivic took away $71.6 million dollars from Dilley alone. These detention centers generate huge profits, which encourages the prison owners to fill beds with more detained immigrants. Last year, legislation was introduced in Texas to allow family detention centers to obtain child care facility licensing without meeting the minimum standards that other child care facilities must meet. Eventually, the bill was not passed and licensing was revoked from the Karnes center. However, the center continues to detain children. This is in direct violation of the Flores Agreement, which states that detained children must be kept in the least restrictive environment possible, requires child care licensing, and states that detainment for over three weeks is unlawful. Inaction from the government enables these centers to continue substandard practices that have harmed and will continue to harm children.

"Kids Out of Detention Centers" is stamped onto concrete in black ink with barbed wires surrounding the text.
Keep Kids Out of Detention Centers. Source: Stephen Mitchell, Creative Commons.

The government justifies the practice of detainment through “aggressive deterrence strategy,” which is meant to dissuade more migrants from attempting to gain entry to the United States. This strategy is not effective; the mass violence that many immigrants flee from is far deadlier than the misery of detainment, though both are damaging to families. Women with children are the least mobile group among communities in conflict, and often only flee in the face of real danger. Essentially, families who have fled violence must go somewhere, and the United States is both geographically convenient and generally safe. To deny families refuge is cruel enough, but to create more misery, vulnerability and trauma through inhumane detainment should be an unacceptable practice. We cannot deny that the United States is violating the human rights of thousands of children and mothers. Children in detention centers have a right to education, a right to an adequate standard of health, and the right to freedom from torture, along with all other human rights as defined by the UDHR. Educational needs have not been met by any standard, available healthcare is abominable, and much of the circumstances for detained children could be defined as torture or degrading treatment. Beyond this, the practice of family detention alone is a violation of the human rights of many detained children, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child states:

“No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

Smiling children hold signs that say "keep families together."
Untitled. Source: Peoples World, Creative Commons.

The conditions in which these vulnerable groups have been forced into are inhumane and dangerous. The detainment of children at U.S. centers rarely conform to the law adequately and detainment periods are often months long. Family detention is punitive by nature, yet none of the detained mothers or children in family detention centers are detained on the basis of crime. Data collected by the Detention Watch Network shows that the majority of families in the centers qualify for asylum status and therefore deserve to be freed, but institutional obstacles prevented the obtainment of that status. Families in detainment simply seek safety and protection from violent conflict in their home country. The mother who make the decision to uproot their homes in search of a better life have not committed a crime, and neither have the children who accompany them. The United States is actively harming a blameless population who has already been subject to trauma and abuse. This problem is not confined to the United States; family detainment occurs around the world in varying degrees of injustice from Australia to Israel. It is essential to call attention to this issue in order to preserve the human rights of children internationally. The global community must condemn the actions of any government that engages in the inhumane practice family detention.

Show me your papers. Show me your humanity.

 

a picture of a bunch of passports
All mine. Source: Baigal Byamba, Creative Commons.

The Significance of Following Asylum Seekers’ Stories, from a Human Rights Student’s Perspective

Over the past year I have had the opportunity to be involved, peripherally, in cases of Mexican nationals seeking asylum in the United States. The first case that Dr. Chris Kyle involved his students in was a woman fleeing Mexico with her very young children after an extortion attempt and death threats. My involvement was to research in ethnographies, books, and other sources to provide the woman with a claim to a “particular social group.” The assignment was to prove that this woman was targeted for persecution on account on her membership in a “particular social group”. Because drug cartel activities and government corruption produce victims indiscriminately, demonstrating membership in a particular social group is arguably one of the most difficult aspects of asylum claims for Mexican applicants. The argument I made placed the applicant in a PSG of ‘women whose husbands are migrant workers’. She was recognizably vulnerable in her community without the protection of an adult male in the household, as well as vulnerable to extortion due to possible remittances from her husband. (The woman and her children were granted asylum and this case set a precedent for this particular social group to be recognized in future asylum cases.)

This semester I have shadowed Dr. Kyle when he is asked to be an expert witness for asylum applicants, testifying to the credibility of their claims due to violence in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Much of what I have done this semester is to listen in to conversations between Dr. Kyle and immigration lawyers, research the obstacles that Mexican asylum seekers face, and explore the moral and legal arguments in human rights claims. It has been my experience while shadowing Dr. Kyle through a few asylum claims, that humanizing issues of asylum, immigration, and migration, is invaluable to understanding these issues in an academic setting. Having the opportunity to be involved even minimally in these asylum cases has been crucial to my perspective on human rights. For me, studying human rights isn’t about broadly philosophical, conceptual ideals. My experience with asylum cases over the past year has provided a more intimate understanding of human rights as the recognition of intrinsic human dignity and the use of law and institutions to affirm the value of human life.

When immigration lawyers ask for an expert witness to attest to a specific aspect of an asylum claim they send their client’s affidavit to the expert. Asylum seeker’s affidavits are essentially an outline of every trauma the claimant and their family have endured that could justify their need for asylum. In one particular case this semester the list of traumas I noted included the following: child sexual abuse, child molestation, rape, attempted gang rape, kidnapping, extortion, physical violence, death threats, torture, and PTSD. In this particular case the lawyer feels confident that the family will be granted asylum, but there are still uncertainties and possible complications in the legal argument on their behalf.

Reading each of these individual’s asylum claims has provoked me to question the ways in which we interpret and practice asylum law. Do we consider our moral responsibility to fellow humans often enough? Do we consider the ethical implications of political biases of immigration judges? Is the United States meeting its obligations under international law to accept and protect legitimate asylum seekers? My answer is consistently, no.

At one point during my research on international refugee laws and mobility rights, it became suddenly clear that who we ascribe human rights to is tied up in the symbolism of an object that societies have conjured as proof of humanness: documentation. In the United States, legal rights such as those provided through citizenship are paramount to our notion of humanity. Migrant workers are protected with certain rights… as long as they are documented as a migrant worker. Who is worthy of protection under the law? Who is worthy to work in order to shelter and feed their family? Being protected from harm and having the ability to provide for our families’ survival are human rights. Yet we ascribe value to a person based on the papers they carry, and devalue them based on the papers they don’t carry.

In the US, we use “undocumented” and “illegal” synonymously. Being “undocumented” is a crime worthy of prison detention and deportation to certain harm or death. Without “proper documentation”, people may be denied their rights, arbitrarily detained, and unprotected from abuse. Are we living in an era of human history where compassion is contingent on papers? Documentation is important for security matters, but it shouldn’t be the scale for whose life is valuable.

 

 

Kara is a graduate student in the UAB Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights program. In the coming weeks, Dr. Kyle and Kara will host a lecture to discuss their work.

Threads in American Tapestry: Asylum Seekers and Refugees

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Ilhan Omar. Source: Lorie Shaull, Creative Commons.

Ilhan Omar is a Minnesota state representative. She is the first American lawmaker of Somali descent. She is a former refugee. Omar and her family fled Somalia during the civil war and lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for four years before emigrating to the United States in 1995. Wearing a white hijab, Omar who is Muslim, declared in her victory speech that “this was a victory for every person that’s been told they have limits on their dreams. Our campaign has been about more than just uniting a district, more than winning back the House, more than making history. Our campaign has been about shifting narratives, restoring hope and re-establishing access in our democracy.” Her victory reminded me to ignore political and xenophobic rhetoric, and search to better understand the lives of asylum seekers and refugees in order to place them in a position of honor for what they have endured and overcome in pursuing a new life for themselves and their families.

Asylum seekers and refugees are often on the receiving end of a disqualifying international narrative, rooted in half-truths and innuendos. In her address at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Samantha Power remarked that “people do not become refugees by choice, obviously; they flee because their lives are at risk – just as we would do if we found ourselves in such a situation. And most want to go home.” The current discourse of asylum and refugee status has brought about some confusion, given the misconception that the terms are interchangeable. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” An asylum seeker or ‘prima facie’ refugee is a person who seeks safety from persecution or serious harm in another country and awaits a decision on the application for refugee status under relevant international and national instruments. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that there is a system which determines who qualifies for international protection; an interview is a key part of the process that is often negated given the swells of people crossing a border. For many who seek asylum, the first step in the process is generally a placement in detention.

Michael Welch insists that detention is the harshest act of punishment a state can inflict on people, and that seriousness increases if persons are escaping persecution rather than being held for criminal or immigration offenses. Chico Harlan reports that immigration detention is a billion-dollar industry in America. President Obama closed a detention facility in Taylor, Texas in 2008 because children were imprisoned and limited to play. Yet, in response to the “porous state of the nation’s border”, the administration implemented a tougher stance that changed the policies and empowered the Corrections Corporation of America to build the country’s largest immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas. The 2400 bed facility is home to thousands of asylum seekers as they work their way through the immigration process.

Asylum seekers are individuals or families in crisis, yet they are often treated as criminals. The women and children at the Dilley detention facility arrived at the border in search of the American value of welcoming those fleeing violence. Their hope is for hospitality and refuge; instead they describe their detention experience as worse than the abuse and violence they fled. Human rights violations and the fleeing from persecution go hand in hand as Gil Loescher explains. He writes that some find the protection they need while others find themselves victims in exile; many at the hands of the governments from whom they are longing to gain compassion.

City residents who live outside the walls of the detention center in Dilley, Texas assume that those dwelling in the center have a nice existence. However, those who have been released revealed their treatment included sleep deprivation, sleeping on cold floors, feelings of prolonged imprisonment, and not receiving an opportunity to appeal to a judge. Children should only be held in detention for up to 20 days. On average, according to the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), “asylum seekers are mandatorily detained pending a DHS [Department of Homeland Security] determination of their ‘credible fear’ of persecution upon return. This detention lasts an average of 27 days, including the time it takes to ascertain whether they have a “credible fear,” and to decide whether those found to have a credible fear should be “paroled” (released) while they pursue political asylum.” In Berks County, Pennsylvania, at least three families have been detained for nearly one year, forcing the women to initiate a hunger strike in protest for their release. Additionally, Nauru and Manus Island off the coast of Australia, asylum seekers spend an average of 450 days in detention. The detention of asylum seekers as an anti-terrorist or immigration strategy is a blatant disregard for international law. Human Rights Watch reported that on July 24, 2015, US Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the Obama administration was committed to making considerable changes to the family immigration detention process.  

The Australian government in late October 2016 announced new legislation banning asylum seekers–who arrived by boat since July 2013–entrance to the country, in any capacity. Government officials believe the “law change was necessary to support key government border protection policies, including temporary protection visas, regional processing and boat turnbacks.” Australia’s new policy shines light on the underworld of asylum seeking: human trafficking and smuggling. The UNHCR reports that nearly 34,000 people (or the population of Vestavia Hills, Alabama in 2014) are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict and persecution. Desperate and vulnerable, those who are unable to find refuge in neighboring countries seek out other means–smuggling and trafficking—to get across borders, thus circumventing border patrols and the proper immigration process. Human trafficking and smuggling presents additional problems if a victim is caught. Loescher believes that international laws have to be adjusted, if not created, because the flows of those seeking refuge have been unprecedented. “This is not because there were no refugees; numerous acts of persecution and expulsion accompanied the rise of the modern state of Europe and elsewhere. Only in the twentieth century when refugee flows exploded and came to be regarded as a threat, were legal and institutional responses developed…” The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as

“…[a person] owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. In the case of a person who has more than one nationality, the term “the country of his nationality” shall mean each of the countries of which he is a national, and a person shall not be deemed to be lacking the protection of the country of his nationality if, without any valid reason based on well-founded fear, he has not availed himself of the protection of one of the countries of which he is a national.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 65.3 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, or the current population of the United Kingdom.

Refugee Camp. Source: tpsdave, Creative Commons.
Refugee Camp. Source: tpsdave, Creative Commons.

Forced migration is a political, economic, and security concern; more than that, it is a human rights issue that should be treated as a humanitarian crisis. Refugees International provides recommendations and solutions which identify needs for basic services such as food, water, and protection from harm. Presently of the 21.3 million refugees in the world, 39% are being hosted in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Turkey has received 2.5 million. As a means of housing the multitudes, many governments have set up encampment sites. Dadaab in Kenya–home to nearly 300,000–is the world’s largest refugee camp. Unfortunately, as Loescher points out, the exile violates the numerous statues in the 1951 Refugee Convention, namely freedom from movement and wage-earning employment. The limitations cripple the family from creating a dignified life in a new country. Additionally, because refugee camps are established by the government, they can be closed and destroyed like Moria in Lesbos, Greece and ‘The Jungle’, in Calais, France. Both camps have been destroyed by fire, forcing thousands of refugees to flee once again.

Refugees have no state rights. Their country rights were forfeited when they fled their home country. Fortunately, the 1951 Refugee Convention stipulates that first and foremost, a refugee should not be returned to a country where there are threats to their life or freedom. This is the principle of non-refoulement. It also states that refugees must have access to courts, employment and education, and other social and civil rights afforded to the host country’s citizens. This year, the United States has admitted 10,000 Syrian refugees and 38,901 Muslim refugees. Earlier this month, it was announced that approximately 1,200 asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island will make their home in America during 2017. Many have been vocal about the perceived threat and the uncertainty about the adaptability of these newcomers to American life. However, the two year screening and resettlement process and the success story of Ilhan Omar, Madeleine Albright, Marlene Dietrich, and Albert Einstein should prove to contradict naysayers, giving voice to the tremendous contribution asylum seekers and refugees have brought and continue to bring to the United States when provided an opportunity to become a part of the fabric of our society rather than a stain on it.