Haitian Disaster to US Detention

UPDATE:  The U.S. freed the 30 Haitian detainees from immigrant detention facilities tonight after they spent about two months behind bars.

Here we go again: one more egregious example of the discriminatory treatment of Haitians in immigration law, and another in how the drastic impact of mandatory detention devastates already traumatized people. Unlike any other nationality, US policy requires that all Haitians seeking entry into the US be detained until it is decided by immigration authorities whether they will be admitted. There are no exceptions, and the consequences of this draconian policy were illuminated in a New York Times story today reporting that at least 30 Haitians evacuated by the US government out of Haiti were immediately detained in jails upon their arrival to the US, and have remained in jail since January.

Who are these people? According to the New York Times article, none have criminal histories. Many were rescued from the rubble of the Haitian earthquake. One is 18 years-old and the sole breadwinner for his two younger brothers. But he can’t support his siblings when he is jailed in Florida. Many have relatives in the US who will provide them with shelter and care, but immigration authorities won’t release them. Apparently 33 Haitians were released this afternoon, but like so much Immigration and Customs Enforcement action lately, it seems to be related to embarrassing newspaper exposure rather than good, uniform policy.

Discrimination of any kind, including nationality, is strictly prohibited in all core international human rights instruments. For this reason alone, arriving Haitians should not be detained unless they pose a demonstrable danger to the US or flight risk. The arbitrariness of the Haitians’ detention is made clearer by the fact that the US government has halted all deportations to Haiti indefinitely. From a purely fiscal perspective, they’re not going anywhere, so why spend thousands of dollars locking Haitians up in jail when they could be working and contributing to the rebuilding of their country? Haitians arriving since the earthquake should be immediately considered for release to family, friends or other sponsors, and provided with permission to work so that they can support themselves here and their families and friends in Haiti.

Don't Quota Me

On February 22, James Chaparro’s sixth day on the job as the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) behemoth detention and removal operation, he issued a memo directing all ICE field office directors to collectively identify, detain and deport 400,000 individuals in 2010. Stressing the need to increase this year’s numbers, the memo communicated the quota and provided ideas for how individuals could be identified for deportation, including increased use of detention and deportations without an immigration court hearing (i.e., expedited and stipulated removal). Entirely missing from the memo was any consideration of the drastic impact massive detention and removal would have on individual families, communities and employers.

Last Saturday, The Washington Post carried a story containing the first public information about the memo and the deportation quota. The Assistant Secretary of ICE John Morton issued a press statement distancing the agency from the memo’s contents. Chaparro apologized for the memo, stating that within a week of starting his job he had written and issued the memo without the approval of Morton or other senior staff. Daring and ambitious, if it’s really possible that a memo of this magnitude could be crafted and published at ICE headquarters without any consultation within the first few days of work, but frightening if Morton’s oversight is really this lax on national policy decisions to shatter families.

After Chaparro’s mea culpa, Morton stated emphatically that ICE does not use deportation quotas. Instead it has “performance goals” for individual ICE officers that should collectively add up to 400,000 deportations in 2010. Regardless of intent, in practice these performance goals result in a deportation quota. For example, in November 2009, in an e-mail titled “Productivity,” a unit of ICE officers was ordered to open up three new deportation cases every day. Failure to do so would require an explanation to the shift supervisor. On January 4, 2010, a full month before Chaparro arrived on the scene, ICE officers in Texas received a document explaining how their performance would be evaluated – deporting 46 or more people per month would garner an “excellent” mark. Completing 30 individual cases or less was “unacceptable.”

In 2010 one of those successfully completed “cases” involved a refugee whom I will call David. David had been resettled in the United States after suffering extreme torture in a prison camp. He entered this country with PTSD and self-medicated, which resulted in a drug possession conviction. ICE held him in county jails and moved to deport him but couldn’t because, given his severe trauma, an immigration judge waived the deportation. Over more than two years ICE appealed the decision, lost and appealed again. Even though David kept winning his case and being locked up was causing recurrent nightmares and flashbacks, ICE would not release David from detention. When I met David last summer he explained that his indefinite detention was wreaking havoc on his mental and physical health, and he did not have access to medical care that would help alleviate the trauma. He told me that every day he volunteered to help out jail staff in any way possible, hoping that it would exhaust him so that he could sleep. At the end of 2009, with an ICE appeal still pending, David gave up, leaving a U.S. citizen child behind. In January, his deportation helped one ICE officer meet his monthly quota.

Measuring success by the numbers may make sense in finance, but when the numbers constitute real people – mothers and fathers, breadwinners and caretakers, community leaders, human rights defenders, refugees and scholars – it is an entirely inappropriate and dehumanizing measure of success. Without a doubt, ICE leadership is under pressure to be tough on immigrants, but this pressure cannot trump the rights of families to unity and individuals to due process and dignity.

For months Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Morton have publicly committed to transparency in government and dignity in detention and removal. Yet, it was only because of a newspaper’s exposure that Morton spoke out against Chaparro’s memo, and even then, he did not disavow the contents and instead essentially stated that it could have been better written.

Deportation quotas are dehumanizing, degrading and undermine due process. They force ICE officers to view individuals and families as milestones on their own road to success instead of people with their own hopes and dreams. Consistent with his public statements, Morton should retract the February 22nd memo, recalibrate and publicly release performance goals that focus on the deportation of individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes, and publicly restate his commitment to a system of detention and deportation that upholds the U.S. government’s ability to deport the dangerous while respecting and protecting the human rights of all.

30 Years On Refugee Rights Still in Flux

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the US Refugee Act of 1980, a bipartisan bill that made concrete the US government’s commitment to people fleeing persecution and human rights violations.

There are more than 40 million refugees and other displaced people in the world and this number is neither a temporary problem nor the random product of chance events. It is the predictable consequence of human rights crises, the result of decisions made by individuals who wield power over other people’s lives.

From the resettlement of the Vietnamese boat people and refugees fleeing the former Soviet Union, to today’s Iraqi and Bhutanese refugees, the refugee resettlement program has been an enduring symbol of the US government’s commitment to protect those who flee persecution.

Unfortunately, in the 30 years since passage of the Refugee Act, US law, policy and practice has often ignored the rights of asylum seekers inside the US. The Refugee Protection Act of 2010, introduced by Senator Leahy (D-VT) and his colleagues this week, goes a long way toward restoring US respect and protection for the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and others on the move by addressing dire US immigration detention conditions, protecting victims of terrorism from being defined as terrorists, requiring non-discriminatory interdiction policies, and providing protection for stateless people in the US.

One of the cruelest ironies for people seeking protection in the US – many of whom have been detained and tortured at home – is that they are subject to mandatory detention as soon as they request “safety” here. Despite the fact that this law is in direct violation of obligations under the Refugee Convention, the US continues to use detention as a means to deter refugees from seeking asylum or to encourage them to abandon their asylum applications.

If passed, the Refugee Act of 2010 will make critical changes to US immigration law consistent with international obligations and the language and intent of the 1980 Refugee Act. For example, it will ensure that all asylum seekers who have passed a “credible fear” interview will be immediately considered for release from detention.

Senator Leahy’s bill includes other key safeguards for the human rights of detained refugees and asylum seekers. The bill establishes a nation-wide, secure “alternatives to detention” program, which will reduce the unnecessary and undue detention of asylum seekers and immigrants who pose no threat. In addition, the bill makes minimum standards of humane treatment in detention enforceable by law. These provisions will ensure protection of the basic human rights and human dignity of those seeking a new life in the US.

Amnesty International USA applauds the efforts of Senator Leahy and his colleagues to pass legislation repositioning the US as a champion of refugee rights in the 21st century, and urges all members of Congress to support this act.

- Sung In Marshall contributed to this blog

Stop Harassing Gandhian Activists!

The peace activists, belonging to the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), a group that professes a Gandhian ideology of non-violence, have been campaigning for adivasi rights in the state for the past four years.  It’s been necessary because they are caught in the middle of an increasingly vicious conflict between the Maoist guerillas (aka the Naxalites) and basically pro-government vigilantes called the Salwa Judum.

On December 10, 2009 (Human Rights Day, no less), the Chhattisgarh state police arbitrarily arrested Kopa Kunjam (a member of the VCA) and Alban Toppo, a lawyer working with the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network (NRLN) at Dantewada in the southern part of the state. They were taken first to the Dantewada police station and then to the Bhairamgarh police station in the neighboring Bijapur district.

Alban Toppo reported that the police tortured him and Kopa Kunjam that night at the Bhairamgarh police station. They were beaten with thick bamboo sticks and rubber canes for 30 minutes. Toppo was forced to sign a letter stating that they had come to Bhairamgarh police station of their own accord. As a result of the torture, Toppo sustained injuries on his right elbow, biceps and back, causing severe pain and swelling. He could not move his hands and back because of the pain. Kopa Kunjam sustained serious injuries on his chest, back and leg, which left him unable to walk.

Although Toppo was released that night, he remained at the police station, as he had no means of returning home. Accompanied by police personnel, he was able to return the next morning. On December 12, 2009, Kopa Kunjam appeared before a local court where he was charged, under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, with the murder of Punem Honga, a local leader and member of the Salwa Judum, who had been abducted by the Maoists on June 2, 2009.

The arbitrary detention of the VCA activists clearly violates India’s Supreme Court guidelines issued in the D. K. Basu vs State of West Bengal case and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a state party. Article 9 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to liberty, which includes freedom from arbitrary detention.

The Government of Chhattisgarh needs to do the following:

  1. drop the politically motivated charges against Kopa Kunjam;
  2. investigate the allegations of ill-treatment again Mr. Kunjam and Mr. Toppo;
  3. ensure that human rights defenders are able to their work without fear of harassment, arbitrary arrest and torture.

Given that the state was formed in 2000 to address the aspirations of adivasis, it is disappointing that the state government continues to use the heavy hand of the police to harm those practicing their constitutionally guaranteed rights of free expression.

India Needs to Repeal Armed Forces Act NOW


Street scene in Imphal, the capital of Manipur

Street scene in Imphal, the capital of Manipur

Now is the time for Members of Parliament (called the Lok Sabha) to act to repeal the 1958 Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (aka: AFSPA) and its Jammu and Kashmir counterpart.  This law allows the Indian security forces to operate in the northeastern part of the country as well as Jammu and Kashmir by declaring an area “disturbed.”  This “disturbed” designation has been in effect for upwards of five decades in some parts of the northeast (Assam and Manipur in particular).  This law gives security forces a licence to operate with virtual impunity with no fear of prosecution except in the rarest of circumstances.  How would you feel if you knew that the Army could come into your house without a warrant and if they abused your human rights you would have no recourse for justice?

It’s not like this law is uncontroversial in India.  On the contrary, it is very controversial indeed.  In 2005, the Central Government appointed a former Supreme Court judge, Jeevan Reddy, to look into the law after widespread protests in Manipur.  Judge Reddy’s committee recommended repeal of the AFSPA, saying that it had become “a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and high-handedness.”  Oh, by the way, this law is also in violation of international law, specifically the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

So, let’s see– a government committee said it should be abolished, it’s in violation of international law and has been used to commit widespread human rights violations. Doesn’t it seem like these would be reasons enough to abolish this law?

Unlock the Camps in Sri Lanka!

Hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the recent war in North Eastern Sri Lanka live now in camps and are being denied basic human rights. In response to this crisis we just launched the Unlock the Camps campaign, in which we urge the Sri Lankan government to allow freedom of movement and the installment of a civilian administration of the military run internment camps. We further call on the Government of India to monitor the aid pledged to the Sri Lankan government. As part of the Unlock the Camps campaign we have developed a Facebook Crisis Application, and produced a new Briefing Paper.

Two months after the end of the fighting, the Sri Lankan authorities are still not addressing properly the needs of the newly displaced. The camps are overcrowded and unsanitary. In addition, these are effectively detention camps. They are run by the military and the camp residents are prevented from leaving them; they are denied basic legal safeguards. The government’s claim that it needs to hold people to carry out screening is not a justifiable reason to detain civilians including entire families, the elderly and children, for an indefinite period.

Displaced people have even been prevented from talking to aid workers. With no independent monitors able to freely visit the camps, many people are unprotected and at risk from enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrest and sexual violence.

According to government figures, the fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) displaced over 409,000 people. At least 280,000 are displaced from areas previously under LTTE control. A dramatic influx of people fleeing the fighting and crossing to government controlled areas took place from March 2009. The displaced people, including at least 50,000 children, are being accommodated in 41 camps spread over four districts. The majority of the displaced are in Vavuniya District where Menik Farm is the biggest camp.

When United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited some of the camps in May, he said:

I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scene I have seen.

While some progress had been made on providing basic needs, much still needs to be done on the right to health, food, water, family reunion and access to relatives. We continue to urge the government of Sri Lanka:

  • to end restrictions on liberty and freedom of movement
  • to ensure that camps are of a truly civilian nature and administered by civilian authorities, rather than under military supervisions
  • give immediate and full access to national and international organizations and observers, including aid agencies, in order to monitor the situation and provide a safeguard against human rights violations.

Trapped in de-facto detention camps

The Sri Lankan government said on 21 May that the displaced will be resettled in 180 days. But very few have so far been allowed to return to their homes or to join friends or family elsewhere, and people remaining in the camps are not at liberty to leave camp premises. The Sri Lankan government must end its policy of forcibly confining people to camps, which amounts to arbitrary detention.  The Sri Lankan government must allow persons who require temporary shelter in these facilities to come and go freely.

With assistance and support from the international community and the involvement of displaced people themselves, the Sri Lankan government must set up clear benchmarks and timelines to ensure that displaced people can safely return home or find other durable solutions (such as relocation) as soon as possible.

Iranian Lawyer Shadi Sadr Released!

We’re happy to bring you some good news in the case of lawyer and human rights activist Shadi Sadr.

We’ve all watched with dismay during that last 2 months as Iran has cracked down on hundreds of thousands of people who have poured into the streets to protest the contested results of June’s presidential election. Behind the scenes, Iranian authorities have conducted a campaign to silence dissident voices — like human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani — through arbitrary arrests and detention.

It was as part of this campaign that Shadi Sadr was detained last month. On July 17, Sadr was walking on a road in Tehran when men in civilian clothes grabbed her and attempted to push her into a car. Sadr lost her headscarf and coat in the ensuing struggle but managed briefly to escape. She was quickly recaptured and beaten with batons, and then taken away in the car.

We are relieved to report that after more than a week in custody, Sadr was released on bail, thanks in part to appeals from Amnesty activists worldwide. Amnesty International is monitoring her situation and will issue further updates as they become available.

Update: Iran Releases 140 Prisoners

The Iranian authorities have announced they have released 140 prisoners from Evin Prison in northern Tehran, reports Reuters. Parliament official Kazem Jalali says that 150 prisoners, arrested during the uprising after the June 12th Presidential election, still remain behind bars.

Ayatollah Khamenei has also ordered the closure of a detainment center in Kahrizak after it failed to “preserve the rights of detainees”. Whether the prisoners in that prison were released or transferred elsewhere remains to be seen.

History in the Making in Iran

Iranian plain clothes policemen beat a demonstrator (c)AFP/Getty

Iranian plain clothes policemen beat a demonstrator (c)AFP/Getty

We are glued to news coming out of Iran, literally watching as history is unfolding. Commentators have been grasping for relevant comparisons; is this another Tiananmen Square? Another Prague Spring? Or is it even a Second Iranian Revolution? But no comparisons are appropriate for the phenomenal outpouring of people demanding that their rights be respected.

Why is this happening in Iran? We don’t see massive protests in other Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt when there have been allegations of electoral impropriety.

Adjectives such as fearless, indomitable and awe-inspiring come to mind as we see Iranians continually defying bans on opposition protests to pour into the streets by the hundreds of thousands. They constantly find ingenious ways to confound the authorities’ attempts to block communications; now that foreign journalists have been prevented from covering rallies, we rely on the videos, photos and eyewitness accounts provided by Iranian citizens to YouTube and their friends and relatives for up-to-the-minute information.

Iranians express their defiance in a variety of other ways: women have been risking their safety and even their lives to walk up to Basij (paramilitaries) and riot police on motorcycles and armed with truncheons to remind them that “we are all Iranians” and asking them to refrain from violence. Even members of Iran’s soccer team playing in a World Cup qualifying match in Seoul wore green armbands, the color of the opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The yearning for freedom and human rights is a mighty force. Some have claimed that human rights is somehow a “western” concept, foisted on the rest of the world by paternalistic and arrogant Europeans and North Americans. Yet despite Iranian authorities’ attempts to portray the protests as being somehow the result of American “interference” it is clear that the impetus for the massive protests comes from the Iranian people themselves.

What will happen? Already the Supreme Leader has made an unprecedented announcement that there will be an investigation into the allegations of election fraud. Another massive rally by supporters of Mr. Mousavi has been called for tomorrow and there is no way to predict where events will lead.

The authorities have reacted to the unrest by use of force—sometimes lethal—as well as by mass arrests of opposition figures, journalists and human rights lawyers. We hope they will not unleash the full fury of the Revolutionary Guards against the demonstrators, which could result in unthinkable deaths and injuries. But we do know that there is no turning back. The Iranian authorities cannot count on the hope that things will just settle down and that the Iranian people will continue to accept the massive human rights violations perpetrated on them.

The Nightmarish Detention of U.S. Immigrants

(Originally posted in the Bell Gardens Sun)

Coming to the United States was a “dream come true” for Deda Makaj. Now 42, Deda fled Albania 20 years ago after enduring five years in a hard labor camp, the culmination of years of persecution he and his family suffered due to their anti-communist beliefs. He escaped to Greece in 1992 and, with the help of a charity in Athens, made it to California, where he was granted refugee protection and became a lawful permanent resident.

Over the next five years, he cobbled together his American dream, beginning with a minimum-wage job and eventually buying a dollar store. He met his wife Nadia, a refugee from Afghanistan, and they had three children.

Then a combination of bad luck and naïveté tore Deda’s American dream apart. He unwittingly bought a stolen car, and he falsified his income on a home loan application upon the encouragement of his loan officer. After serving 16 months in jail for his crimes, he was immediately placed in immigration detention in Arizona. There, he spent the next four years fighting deportation until he was finally released on bond late last year.

Deda bore witness to the human rights catastrophe that is the U.S. immigration detention system: immigrants imprisoned for months before getting a hearing and sometimes years before a decision; abuse from criminal prisoners; suicides. By the time Deda was released, his business had failed.

Amnesty International’s recent report, Jailed Without Justice, details the U.S. immigration detention system, a purgatory of legal limbo where the core American value of due process does not apply. On any given night, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) warehouses more than 30,000 immigrants in prisons and jails—a number that has tripled in the past 12 years. Among them, surely, are immigrants who have committed deportable offenses or are undocumented—but the jailed also include large numbers of legal permanent residents, individuals seeking protection from political or religious persecution, survivors of torture and human trafficking, U.S. citizens mistakenly ensnared in immigration raids, and parents of U.S. citizen children.

Investigative news reports have exposed a litany of human rights abuses in the detention facilities, including physical violence, the use of restraints, and substandard medical care. While in detention, immigrants and asylum seekers are often unable to obtain the legal assistance necessary to prepare viable claims for adversarial and complex court proceedings. Sometimes they cannot even make a simple phone call to obtain documents that would prove they should go free. Some immigrants become so desperate at the prospect of indefinite detention that they agree to deportation despite valid claims.

Amnesty International has launched a campaign to pressure our government to honor its human rights obligations. Legislation is needed so that detention is used only as a measure of last resort, after non-custodial measures, such as reporting requirements or reasonable bond, have failed. Lawmakers who fear anti-immigrant backlash might consider the secondary benefits to honoring our moral imperative: the average cost of detaining a migrant is $95 per person/per day, while alternatives to detention cost as little as $12 per person/per day and yield up to a 99 percent success rate, according to ICE, as measured by immigrants’ appearance in immigration courts for removal hearings.

Congress should also pass legislation to ensure due process for all within our borders, including the right to a prompt individualized hearing before an immigration judge. Currently, ICE field office directors have the power to decide whether to detain someone; yet to incarcerate an individual for months, or even years, before a court makes a judgment on the individual’s case is an absurd negation of our nation’s stated commitment to the rule of law.

Finally, the U.S. government must adopt enforceable human rights standards in all detention facilities that house immigrants. These standards can only be overseen and enforced by an independent body that has the power to hold ICE accountable.

For more than a decade, the federal government has underwritten the unchecked expansion of ICE’s power. The result is a detention system riddled with inconsistencies, errors and widespread human rights violations. Tens of thousands of lives hang in the balance. The time has come for the U.S. government to apply the rule of law to those within its own borders.

Posted in USA