Five Reasons to Be Excited About Passage of the Violence Against Women Act

Activists unite in Farragut Square in Washington, D.C. for the One Billion Rising event (Photo Credit: Sarah K. Eddy)

(Photo Credit: Sarah K. Eddy)

We did it! The groundbreaking Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was just passed by the House of Representatives and will now be sent to President Obama for his signature!

It’s been a long road to victory. I wrote earlier this year about the indefensible demise of VAWA in the last Congress. The last Congress missed a momentous opportunity to stand up for the safety of all women. So women – and men – stood up for themselves; on February 14, 2013, Amnesty International joined the One Billion Rising movement to stand up, walk out, and dance to end violence against women globally. We called for Congress to quit the partisan politics and finally pass a Violence Against Women Act that included ALL communities.

Since then, we have seen the new Congress introduce and pass VAWA in the Senate and now the House has followed suit.

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Hacking Away at Threats

mobile phone activate

Developing an App to securely capture and transmit photo and video

In a little over a week, I’ll make my way to San Francisco to participate in an innovation event that represents the cutting edge of the promise of science and technology in the fight for human rights.

Colleagues from Amnesty International will simultaneously be convening in Berlin, and in both cities, Amnesty and their partners Random Hacks of Kindness, (with their apt slogan “Hacking for Humanity”) will seek practical solutions to the very real threats that refugees and migrants face in transit in Mexico and the Mediterranean in a two-day “hack-a-thon.”

As an aside, for those wedded to the pejorative association with ‘hack,’ ‘hacking,’ ‘hackers,’ a hackathon event is “a gathering of technically skilled individuals focusing on collaborative efforts to address a challenge, issue, or goal.” In this case, the challenge is significant.

Every year, tens of thousands of women, men and children are ill-treated, abducted or raped as they travel through Mexico without legal permission as irregular migrants. As we’ve tragically seen as people have fled Libya and elsewhere in North Africa, the “Mediterranean takes record as most deadly stretch of water for refugees and migrants in 2011“.

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An (Im)perfect DREAM

 

12/09/10

UPDATE: HOUSE PASSES THE DREAM ACT

 

All of your calls, visits and support have worked! Thank you so much for all your hard work over the past few weeks. We are almost there- We now need to make one final push to make sure this important piece of legislation passes in the Senate as well.

This morning the Senate voted to table consideration of their own bill in order to take up the House version. We need you more than ever to urge your Senators to “Pass the DREAM Act”!

We can make history! Reach your Senators by dialing: 866-996-5161

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The day is almost upon us. Thousands of students, families and activists across the country have been waiting nine years for the passage of The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bill that would help thousands of committed students and military officers legalize their status.

In the last few weeks calls for the introduction and passage of such legislation have reached a fever pitch with endorsements from the White House, the DOD, and DHS among others. Last week Senator Durbin (D-IL) introduced S. 3992 and a House companion bill is expected any day.

However, for many DREAM supporters the release of the long-awaited Senate bill last week dampened the spirits of some and outraged others.  

Amnesty International has historically supported the DREAM Act because it provided access to the exercise of significant human rights including the right to education, the right to family life and unity, and due process instead of deportation.  While the introduction of S. 3992 was encouraging, we’re concerned that the over-burdensome framework, including harsh grounds of inadmissibility and deportability undermine the human rights the Dream Act has historically been introduced to remedy.

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SB1070: What Starts in Arizona, Stops in Arizona

On April 23, 2010 Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070 – Arizona’s discriminatory and unfair bill that essentially makes racial profiling legal – into law.

At its core, SB1070 requires any person about whom the police have a “reasonable suspicion” to produce documents proving that s/he is legally in the US.  SB1070, however, does not offer a safeguard against racial profiling if  “reasonable suspicion” cannot be formed without resorting to racial profiling. The law fundamentally increases the likelihood of arbitrary arrest and requires detention once an arrest is made.

In just 2 days, on July 29, this harmful law will officially go into effect and the streets of Arizona will never be the same. Families will be torn apart and innocent people will surely be detained.

But the insanity doesn’t stop there – 9 more states want to follow suit and pass discriminatory immigration policies of their own. Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia are all considering their own versions of Arizona-style legislation against immigrants. And other instances of anti-immigrant measures continue to pop up all across the U.S.

These proposed laws don’t just threaten human rights. They also flagrantly violate the Constitution by threatening every status of U.S. immigrant – including those who have immigrated here legally, those who are in the process of obtaining their legal status, and those who are eligible for legal status. What’s more frightening – anyone who even “looks like an immigrant”, including a U.S. citizen, can be treated as a threat.

This kind of vigilante policy making is dangerous because it completely disregards human rights, including those to freedom of movement, privacy, family unity, and equality under the law. Human rights are protected under international law regardless of a person’s citizenship status. International human rights law is rooted in the principle of non-discrimination, which this law violates; it is all too easy to deny a person’s human rights if you consider them to be as less than human.

Human rights exist regardless of nationality, ethnicity or immigration status. In passing SB1070, Arizona public officials have ignored this truth to the detriment of every individual who passes through the state.

In the next 2 days, let decision-makers know that you oppose these flawed notions about immigration control! Call on your Governor to take a stand against discriminatory immigration policies.

Qing Hong Wu Pardoned!

Qing Hong Wu, the individual spotlighted in my previous blog entry has been pardoned by Governor David Paterson of New York. It is hoped by Mr. Wu’s family and friends that the pardon will stop deportation proceedings against Mr. Wu, result in his release from immigration detention, and lead to his successful application for US citizenship. The fact that it took a governor’s pardon to prevent his inevitable deportation, despite Mr. Wu’s long ties and significant contributions to the US, is an important statement about the rigidity and arbitrariness of current immigration law.

When did the "land of the free" become "the land preventing freedom"?

 The Restore Fairness Campaign  recently posted a video describing the horrific plight of Esmeralda.

Esmeralda: A Transgender Detainee Speaks Out from Breakthrough on Vimeo.

Esmeralda, a transgender asylum seeker from Mexico who came to the United States seeking protection and liberty found herself in immigration detention, in conditions as terrifying as those she was attempting to flee.   Upon arrival at the US border, Esmeralda applied for asylum on the basis of persecution because of her identity as a transgendered person.  Like all asylum seekers seeking protection at US borders, Esmeralda was put into immigration detention. 

There was no reason to think she was a security threat.   There was no reason to think she was a flight risk.  She did not try to escape.  She did not cause trouble in the detention center. 

But according to her testimony: 
She was segregated. 
She was discriminated against. 
She was threatened. 
She was sexually abused and forced to perform oral sex on a prison guard.  SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Posted in USA

Detention Reform: Jailed and Forgotten?

A new report released by New York’s City Bar Justice Center opens a window not only to the problems of immigrants being held in the Varick Federal Detention Center, but also profiles the problems rampant throughout the US immigration system.  The report describes the Know Your Rights Project – a joint effort of the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society and the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association NYC Chapter Pro Bono Committee.  158 interviews were conducted from December 2008 to July 2009, by pro bono attorneys providing legal counsel to immigrants detained at Varick Federal Detention Center.

While sometimes stark and startling, the results reported in the City Bar Justice’s publication are not an isolated circumstance, but rather a case study of an all too common phenomenon.  As Amnesty International has reported on and advocated against for several years, and even the United States Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on US Immigration Policy has admitted, the United States immigration system is not merely flawed—it is broken.

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Stuck Between a Rock and U.S. Immigration Policy

Sarnata Reynolds, AIUSA’s policy and campaign director for refugee and migrant rights, spoke at a press teleconference on Thursday July 30th, 2009, set to discuss the bills presented by Senators Menendez and Gillibrand: “Protect Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Detention Act” and “Strong STANDARDS Act.” These new bills stand to drastically improve plight of detained US citizens and immigrants. The bills also require immigration authorities to ensure that U.S. citizens and other vulnerable populations such as children are informed of their rights when arrested, are considered for release and are treated humanely while detained.

Over the last twelve months, I have met with dozens of people detained in local jails, privately contracted centers, and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities across the United States. Their arbitrary, prolonged and in some cases, indefinite, detention is shameful. Just a few weeks ago in Minnesota, I met two immigrants who had gone an entire year without ever being outside. Twelve months. The county jails they are held in are not designed for long-term detainees, and they have no outdoor facilities. One of the men stated, “deportation is supposed to be a civil procedure, but there’s nothing civil about it.”

In June, I went to Texas and met a man from Maryland who had been granted a $5000 bond by an immigration judge. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorney appealed the decision and invoked what is called the “automatic stay” – a procedure that gives ICE the authority to ignore an immigration judge’s decision while it pursues an appeal. For eight months the man languished in jail. Finally, in early July the administrative appellate body agreed with the immigration judge and ordered his release on a $5000 bond. During the eight months this breadwinner was detained, his family became destitute and now they don’t have the necessary $5000 to bond him out.

These stories are not anomalies. They represent the experiences of thousands of immigrants who are locked up right now across the U.S. They are mothers and fathers, breadwinners and caretakers, community leaders, human rights defenders and scholars. They build houses and raise other people’s children, only to be ripped away from their own.

Immigration detention is a crutch that props up a broken, clumsy and inhumane enforcement policy. It is a poor substitution for smart immigration law, and reform of the entire system is desperately needed.

ICE will say that the average detention stay is 37 days, but this statistic is skewed. It includes the people who agree to be deported almost immediately after being arrested, and this accounts for tens of thousands of people every year. The reality is that if an individual chooses to fight deportation: because he/she is a US citizen, fears persecution, or is not in fact deportable, the person faces months and years of detention.

In our report, Jailed Without Justice, Amnesty International documented over 100 cases in which individuals were detained for years, until they were ultimately found not deportable. These individuals don’t get those years back, and the US taxpayer will not recoup the massive cost of these needless detentions.

While Congress has funded alternatives to detention because they have been shown to be effective and significantly less expensive than detaining people, there is concern that ICE is using these funds for programs such as electronic monitoring to supervise individuals who are eligible for release rather than for individuals who would otherwise be detained.

Secure alternatives to detention should be considered in all cases, and if some form of custody is deemed necessary, they should be the norm for pregnant women, sick seniors, and nursing mothers. This is not the currently the case. In fact, in the summer of 2008, a nine months pregnant woman was detained and forced to undergo labor while shackled to a hospital bed. An officer remained in the room during the entire labor. There was no reason to believe that this heavily pregnant woman posed a flight risk or a danger. At most, she should have been placed in a secure alternative program. She was locked up.

Although the Department of Homeland Security has enacted standards for the treatment of people subject to immigration detention, these standards are not legally enforceable – and as was reported by Amnesty International, and reinforced this week in two more reports, transgressions of the standards occur frequently and with impunity. Despite this reality, just a few days ago the Obama administration declined to independently enact enforceable standards, stating that the current system is functioning well. As anyone who has been detained will tell you, the standards are not working.

Legislation that provides a framework for safe, humane and thoughtful detention policy is desperately needed, and the two bills introduced by Senator Menendez and his colleagues today meet these requirements. Amnesty International USA applauds Senators Menendez, Kennedy and Gillibrand for sponsoring these vital pieces of legislation, and Rep. Roybal Allard for her bill, introduced earlier this year. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in an immigration detention case it decided in 2001, “Freedom from imprisonment— from government custody, detention, or other forms of physical restraint – lies at the heart of the liberty [the due process] clause protects.” This truth is not reflected in current U.S. law and policy. It is time to reform them.

Posted in USA

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

The Latest Buzz on our New Immigration Detention Report

Here’s what the papers are saying about the report we released today, Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA.

USA Today: “Opposing view: We’re seeing progress” By Dora Schriro, special adviser to Homeland Security Secretary

I have learned that the best way to achieve change is to work closely with partners inside and outside of government, including vital organizations such as Amnesty International, which will issue a report raising concerns about immigration detention later today. I will carefully consider this important report.”

San Francisco Chronicle: “New report blasts U.S. on immigrant detainees

More than 400,000 people a year are detained by immigration officials in the United States – including undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants who run afoul of the law and asylum seekers who come fleeing persecution – but according to a report released today by Amnesty International, conditions are often deplorable and detainees are routinely denied due process.”

Bloomberg News: “Immigrants, Citizens Languish in U.S. Detention, Report Says” By Jeff Bliss

Amnesty International recommends that detention become a last resort and that authorities refrain from harsh restraining methods. The New York-based human rights groups also said Congress should pass legislation that would ensure immigrants have individual hearings to determine the need for detention.”

San Jose Mercury News: “Amnesty International lambastes U.S. for treatment of immigrant detainees”  By Ken McLaughlin

In a scathing report on the treatment of immigration detainees held in detention centers and more than 300 local facilities such as the Santa Clara County Jail, Amnesty International charges the federal government violates human rights by allowing tens of thousands of people to languish in custody every year without receiving hearings to determine whether their detention is warranted.”

Posted in USA