Using Border Agents as Translators Has Tragic Consequences

Border Patrol Agent

© Getty Images

Guest post by Erica Schommer, border immigration attorney

This May, in a police stop gone wrong, Benjamin Roldan Salinas and a companion were detained by the U.S. Forest Service for picking salal (a plant used in floral arrangements), without a license.

Because Salinas did not speak English, the Forest Service called in Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to translate. Events escalated rapidly when Salinas, in fear of being apprehended by immigration agents, ran from the agents to a nearby river.

After days of searching, Salinas’ body was found near the river on June 4. His companion remained with agents, but was subsequently arrested by the CBP for a suspected immigration violation and placed in removal proceedings.

Salinas’ fear was due to a phenomenon in which the CBP is called on by outside law enforcement agencies under the guise of translator. Once on the scene, however, the CBP does not limit itself to translating and will question a person about potential immigration violations if it suspects the person of an infraction. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

On 60th Anniversary of Refugee Convention States Failing Refugees

”They stripped me naked and assaulted me. I begged them to kill me. Instead, they cut off my hands with machetes.”
- Amnesty International Interview, Sierra Leone, 1996

libya refugees

The Dhehiba camp in Tunisia © AI

After World War II and the systematic murder of millions of Jews, Roma, LGBT and many others, nations and individuals recognized the need for safe refuge from persecution and genocide.

After years of discussion and negotiation, the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the UN Refugee Convention) and later the 1967 Protocol emerged and provided a framework for protection. Most importantly, it established that no one could be returned to a country in which her/his life or freedom would be at risk.

It also placed obligations on signatories requiring they share responsibility when people flee across borders, and provide those seeking refuge with access to housing, health care and livelihood.

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Migrants’ Rights: A Visual and Verbal Journey

By Amalia Greenberg Delgado, Immigrants’ Rights Coordinator

“You don’t imagine that your dreams can end in a moment on this journey… he [the soldier] pulled me by the hand and told me to walk further into the bushes. He took me far away from the train tracks until we were completely alone. He told me to take my clothes off so that he could see if I was carrying drugs. He said that if I did what he said he would let me go.”
Margarita (not her real name), a 27-year-old Salvadoran migrant, describing how she was sexually abused by a soldier, Amnesty International interview, June 2009.

Every year, tens of thousands of women, men and children travel without legal permission through Mexico to reach the United States. They flee poverty, war, environmental disasters and are enticed by a promise of freedom and a chance to join their families in the North. Some disappear on the journey without trace, kidnapped and killed, robbed and assaulted or sometimes falling or thrown off speeding trains. Some suffer arbitrary detention and extortion by public officials along the way. The litany of abuses and repeated attempts to reach the United States are testaments to the determination migrants have to build a better life.

At the Annual General Meeting (AGM) this past Saturday, March 19, 2011, Amnesty International USA heard from leaders in the movement about increased human rights abuses of migrants on both sides of the United States’ southern border. Father Solalinde, a human rights defender and director of a migrants’ shelter in Oaxaca, spoke of the “globalization of love” and the absolute right to dignity that must be afforded to all human beings. His soft spoken words did not lessen the blows of his words as he reminded us of the struggles that migrants face.

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Refugee at Risk of Forcible Return from Lebanon to Iran

Mohammad Taher Batili is a refugee at risk of torture and possibly the death penalty. He is an Iranian national and member of Iran’s Arab minority. He and his family fled to Lebanon in May 2009 to escape reprisals from the Iranian government due to his and his father’s political activities in support of the Arab minority in Ahvaz, Khuzestan province. He is recognized as a refugee by the UN but was arrested in the Lebanese capital of Beirut on June 2, 2010 on the grounds that he entered Lebanon from Syria illegally. On June 26 he was convicted for “irregular entry” and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment and payment of a fine. One he serves his sentence he may be forcibly returned to Iran where he would be at risk of torture and possibly face the death penalty.

Mohammad Taher Batili has been interrogated twice by officials from Iran’s embassy in Lebanon regarding his father’s political activities and those of other members of Iran’s Arab minority in Syria and Lebanon. His father, Hadi Mohammad Jawad Batili, has been arrested in Iran several times because of his political activities and support of Arab minorities who had been marginalized and abused by government authorities.

Lebanon hosts a large number of refugees seeking protection from violence, war and systematic human rights abuses in their home countries. While many of them are formally recognized as refugees by the UN, they often face arrest and detention by Lebanese authorities. In 2008 the Lebanese authorities agreed to grant refugees a three-month grace period to find an employer to sponsor them and provide them with a residence permit, but it seems this agreement is not being honored. Lebanon is bound by international customary law, including the principle of non-refoulement which states countries may not forcibly return people to countries where they would face serious human rights violations, including torture and other ill-treatment.

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Human and Immigrants' Rights Movement Reacts to Arizona Defiance

Amnesty International is extremely disappointed that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law SB1070, a bill that will significantly increase the likelihood of racial profiling, arbitrary arrests, and detentions in the state. By forcing Arizona police, the vast majority of whom opposed this law, to implement it or face lawsuits is bad policy and will drastically undermine communication between communities of color and the police who are supposed to keep them safe.

As the governor said when signing the bill, national immigration legislation is desperately needed, but the absence of it does not abdicate the governor’s own responsibility to preserve, promote, and protect the human rights of every individual in Arizona, whether citizen, resident, or visitor. 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.

Mourning the loss of Haitian Women's Rights Leaders

The reports from Haiti are more tragic everyday.  The loss, the devastation, the aftershock, the grief and the suffering.  Today, there are reports of losses to the women’s human rights movement- Myriam Merlet, Magalie Marcelin and Anne Marie Coriolan are Haitian women’s human rights defenders who were victims of the earthquake.  This tragic loss will be mourned throughout the global women’s rights community but the impact will be felt deeply as Haiti rebuilds.

Women’s rights and gender equality must be promoted during the humanitarian relief process but also during the rebuilding process.  On the Dianne Rehm show yesterday, academics and relief organizations spoke about the importance of recognizing the risk of gender based violence in refugee camps and the threat of violence against displaced women. 

Amnesty recently reported on sexual violence against school girls in Haiti. The women’s rights leaders who lost their lives spoke out against the issue of gender violence in Haiti before the earthquake.   The people of Haiti, and all of us, relied on human rights defenders like these to take a stand.  My thoughts go out to the families of them and all of the victims of this disaster.

Cover Up of Detention Center Deaths Exposed

This past weekend, the New York Times reported on the widespread and coordinated cover up of deaths in immigration detention. One such case, highlighted in our 2009 report on immigration detention, Jailed Without Justice, involved Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea who had lived in the US for ten years when he was detained. Newly available video shows him begging for help while handcuffed on the floor in solitary confinement. After four months in a coma, he died in detention.

The deliberate and coordinated dehumanization of the 107 people known to have died in immigration detention is shocking and shameful. For the last seven years Amnesty has monitored, investigated and advocated on the mistreatment of immigrants in detention, some of the core problems seemed to stem from incompetence and mismanagement. But it seems clear now that officials involved in immigration detention were regrettably quite competent at re-framing deaths due to neglect, and that detention facilities were in fact well coordinated in the cover up of ill-treatment and disregard.

Independent oversight and accountability is crucial to reforming a cruel detention system that is overused, under-scrutinized and where impunity is the rule and transparency the rare exception. While the US government has publicly stated its intent to reform the detention system, it has specifically rejected calls for enforceable rules as to the treatment of people in detention. According to the government, they are not necessary. The government is wrong. In Jailed Without Justice, Amnesty called for the adoption of enforceable human rights standards in all detention facilities coupled with independent oversight and accountability for transgressions. Until this occurs, ICE will have the ability to arbitrarily deprive people of their liberty, abuse them without repercussion, and label them as criminals as some sort of justification for the mistreatment they are forced to endure in silence.

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

Tensions in DRC Remain High

The situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo remains fragile, after rebel forces and local militia clashed north of Goma. More than 250,000 people have been displaced by the recent fighting and the humanitarian situation remains catastrophic. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is currently trying to find out what happened to the 50,000 people that were previously housed in the area. “As we feared, three internal displacement sites run by UNHCR near the town of Rutshuru in eastern DRC (…) have been destroyed and emptied,” David Benthu Nthengwe, UNHCR external relations officer, told IRIN “We and our partners are now trying to determine the whereabouts of tens of thousands of IDPs from the camps.”

The fighting in eastern DRC represents only a recent spike in violence in a country plagued by years of war. One of the underlying causes of the conflict is the ongoing impunity for perpetrators of the most egregious human rights violations, including sexual violence against women and recruitment of child soldiers. Despite having the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world, the question remains: what else can the international community do to bring lasting peace to the people of the DRC?