No Place to Hide

    May 05, 2016

    Please find here a link to the publication:
    No place to hide : gang, state, and clandestine violence in El Salvador by the International Human Rights Clinic of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program (2010)
    No Place to Hide(Jan_2010)-1

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    Dec 03, 2015

    By Bonita S. Gutierrez


    While news of Syrian refugees has dominated headlines, most have forgotten about the steady stream of refugees seeking asylum in the United States from Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America, which consists of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The Northern Triangle nations have endured consistent and profound degeneration of their daily lives as the governments there have largely buckled under pressure from extremely sophisticated, well armed, and widely dispersed organized crime groups. In recent years, these criminal entities have transformed into a combination of advanced and well-networked gangs (sometimes called “third generation gangs”), drug cartels (formalized commercial drug enterprises), and narco-traffickers (those working in the transportation of drugs). Together, these groups have grown wealthy, powerful, and highly organized due to the international drug trade that flows north through the region from the Andes of South America, destined for consumption in the United States and around the world. The international cocaine trade alone is valued at roughly $88 billion annually. In the Northern Triangle particularly, criminal gangs have successfully challenged the state for its monopoly on state-sanctioned violence. Governments in the region have been unable to protect ordinary citizens from gang-related violence. Adolescent boys as young as 11 are routinely picked out by gang members and forcibly recruited into joining the gang or assisting in drug transactions or other crimes, under the threat of torture or death to them or their family members.


    As the governments in the Northern Triangle have been rendered largely ineffective by the chaos, other kinds of violence have been allowed to flourish. For example, reports of domestic violence, particularly against women and children, have increased 500% in recent years in Guatemala. There, indigenous women and children are doubly impacted by the lack of police protection and pervasive discrimination from Guatemalan society. El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide, or the killing of women at least in part because they are women, in the world. In 2013, Honduras had the highest murder rate of any non-war time country in the world. As a result, innocent people, many times children, are forced to flee Honduras after witnessing extreme violence or murder in their communities. During a 10-month period in 2014, this tiny country witnessed the murder of 767 Honduran youths and children.


    The Mexican government, under pressure from the United States to help prevent fleeing Central American refugees from coming here, has enacted extremely harsh policies of detaining men, women, and children in prison-like conditions without any kind of due process. Children are often detained in overcrowded conditions with non-relative adults. As a result, refugees from Central America are often forced to return to conditions where they were persecuted, a concept called refoulement under asylum law. Mexico, too, has struggled to contain increasingly rouge and indiscriminately violent drug cartels, with violence becoming more open and difficult for innocent people to avoid. Particularly parts of southern Mexico, where over-land drug routes from South America enter the country, have witnessed increasing violence in an atmosphere of impunity.


    Over 50,000 children fled Central America to escape this violence during 2013 and 2014. The total number of people fleeing from the region grows higher when adults, many of them parents of fleeing children, are counted. Since 2014, the United States has responded with mass detention, particularly of women and children who seek asylum based on their fear of persecution in their home countries. These asylum seekers are routinely put in immigration detention facilities upon their arrival in the United States. Detention facilities are run by publicly traded, for-profit corporations and are largely indistinguishable from prison facilities. Women and children are forced to sleep with lights on all night, are processed in freezing cold rooms colloquially called the “ice-box” (hieleras), and are constantly under the gaze and often-arbitrary rules of detention guards. Their access to legal counsel is extremely limited.


    Under federal law, asylum seekers are not guaranteed an attorney to represent them in their asylum cases. Since most detention facilities are located hours away from large cities where pro bono and low-cost attorneys reside, access to legal services for detained asylum-seekers is extremely challenging. Those people who are unable to read and write in English are largely prevented from even filling out asylum applications, much less from preparing the rest of their cases, including writing their own declarations in support of their claims, collecting documentary proof of their claims from their home countries, identifying and arguing their best legal claims, and addressing any legal issues that they may have to overcome to win their cases. Those people who are unable to assert or win their asylum claims, no matter how valid they might be, are often railroaded through the asylum process or forced to remain in detention facilities for months or even years until they are deported back to the same places where they suffered persecution.


    In sum, the United States often treats asylum seekers in a manner similar to how it treats the criminally condemned. In fact, in a paradigm that resembles the plea bargain in criminal court, many immigrants seeking sanctuary in the United States are pressured by the government to accept deportation or to not to appeal adverse Immigration Court decisions, no matter the humanitarian factors presented.




    To support a six-person legal team (including our office) traveling to one of these mass detention centers in Dilley, Texas from December 5 to 12, 2015, please visit our campaign website. We hope to empower the women and children there to be successful in their asylum claims by offering them free legal services and solace during the holiday season.


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    Why the United States Should Welcome Syrian Refugees

    Nov 20, 2015

    By Gabriela Monico and Helen Lawrence

    Last Friday a series of horrible events unfolded in Paris. 129 innocent lives were lost. Hundreds more injured. We mourn the loss of lives and are saddened by the truly terrifying nature of these attacks. Worryingly, however, we quickly see anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric dominating much of the public discussion. This scapegoating of broad, largely extremely vulnerable segments of the world’s population for very complex world problems is, firstly, cruel and, secondly, it is inaccurate. Not only does this hatred towards Muslims, refugees and immigrants fail to solve the complicated issue at hand, but rather it plays into the hands of actual terrorist groups.


    Hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians, Libyans, Eritreans, Yemenis, and others around the world are fleeing the same terror that hit Paris, but that is unfortunately a very regular part of their lives. For many, their way of life, their history, their national treasures have all been destroyed. They are not seeking to replace our way of life with theirs, but simply seeking refuge to survive in the United States and Europe.


    In Syria, since 2011, millions of people have fled from their homes after mass murder, enslavement (including sexual slavery), and even genocide. This has resulted in internal displacement in Syria and refugee camps there and in neighboring countries. The conditions there are horrible and not getting any better. So in order to escape these circumstances hundreds of thousands of people have decided to do the most of human of things, leave. Leave in search of a safer place. Immigrate.


    Things are likely to get worse in Syria before they get better. There will likely be more deaths of innocent civilians and larger numbers of Syrian refugees. The President of France, Francois Hollande, has vowed a “merciless” response to the terrorist attacks. Russia has just dropped the most bombs in Syria this week than it has in decades, not since the collapse of the Soviet Union.


    There are many examples of compassion in which people and their governments have taken in refugees and provided them with shelter. In fact, France is still vowing to honor its commitment to take 30,000 Syrian refugees. Yet, irresponsible grandstanding and hatred-fueled reactions by politicians to terrorism are now increasingly threatening that basic decency and the values that define the United States.


    The House of Representatives just passed a bill that restricts the entry of Syrian refugees, a process which is already very elusive to Syrians because of lengthy, complex background checks. Presidential candidates like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have declared that the U.S. should only grant refugee status to Syrian Christians and not Muslims. At least 31 state governors in the U.S. have issued statements pledging to block Syrian refugees from entering their states even when state governments do not have the legal authority to carry out those plans. This is happening even after the Obama administration pledged to accept only 10,000 Syrian refugees, a very small fraction in comparison to the large number of refugees that other countries are opening their doors to. Clearly, anger and fear towards IS (Islamic State) is turning into hatred and intolerance towards refugees, Muslims, and particularly Syrians. But intolerance is not the answer to this problem. In fact, xenophobia is what has pushed some marginalized youth in France and Europe to seek out extremist ideology and groups like IS. An entire community should not be collectively punished for the acts of an extremist minority.


    Further punishing refugees by showing them the ugly face of xenophobia, hatred, and closing economic opportunities to them on top of the trauma suffered back home will only make it harder for these people to find food and shelter, get back on their feet, and reclaim the dignity that we all deserve as human beings.


    The Syrian refugee crisis is officially the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. “Today’s 3-year-old Syrian orphan, it seems, is 1939’s German Jewish child.” Out of 4 million Syrian refugees, the vast majority are women and children. They are fleeing the same terror that showed itself in Paris last Friday. There is a similar dynamic happening now in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), where thousands of people are fleeing their countries due to gang violence. In El Salvador alone, one person is murdered every hour, making it one of the most violent countries in the world. Just like Syrian refugees, thousands of Central Americans risk their lives to seek refuge in a safe place, away from the violence at home. Many of these women and children are detained in for-profit prisons. They are fighting their deportations and trying to navigate a bureaucratic and complex immigration system in the United States with little to no legal assistance.


    Denying shelter to refugees, regardless of their country of origin, does not reflect American values. As Vice President Joe Biden declared yesterday, “the only way terrorism can win is if they cause you to change your values.” The United States, is a nation of immigrants, we pride ourselves on it. We should set an example to the world and maintain our commitment to welcome refugees fleeing persecution. Let’s help these refugees reclaim their dignity and make policies guided by the strength of our values, not our fears.


    This December, our office, as part of a team of 5 pro-bono attorneys and one paralegal, will travel to the largest immigration detention center in the country, located in Dilley, Texas. The team will represent women and children who have fled extreme violence in their home countries and are seeking asylum in the United States. Consider making a donation that would help cover the team’s basic costs of travel and living. For more information, please visit our fundraising site.











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    Nov 02, 2015

    By Bonita S. Gutierrez

    On September 10, 2015, the Obama administration announced that it will take steps to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees who have been displaced by the civil war, the brutality of which has been compounded by the deepening presence of the Islamic State in Syria. On September 21, 2015, the administration announced that the United States will accept 15,000 additional refugees from all parts of the world in 2016 and 2017, bringing the total number of refugees accepted to 100,000 in 2017, up from 70,000 accepted now. Advocates for refugees, or asylum seekers, argue that the numbers remain woefully inadequate.


    The United States is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syrians affected by the conflict, however, since the war there began in 2011, the United States has resettled only 1,300 Syrian refugees. This number is strikingly low given that approximately 4 million Syrians have been displaced by the war, which has to date resulted in approximately 250,000 deaths. Moreover, several European nations, particularly Germany, have pledged to accept far more. Germany has pledged to take the largest number, a total of 800,000 Syrian refugees this year alone. In May 2015, 14 Democratic Senators called on the President to accept 65,000 Syrian refugees given the acute suffering millions of Syrians face. The senators pointed out that to date, approximately 12,000 asylum applications from Syrian people have been submitted to the United States but only 1,300 have been resettled. The senators argued that there is historical precedent for the United States to accept at least half of the 130,000 refugees that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked Western nations to accept.


    In 2015, the United States will accept 70,000 refugees from all over the world. Of that total, 33,000 spots are reserved for asylum seekers from the Middle East and South Asia. Under the Obama administration’s plan, the total number of refugees accepted from all parts of the world will increase to 85,000 in 2016 and then to 100,000 in 2017. Of the total refugees to be resettled in 2016, an additional 10,000 spots will be reserved for Syrian refugees. This number pales in comparison, however, to the commitments made by European nations to accept far more.


    Wavering political will and lengthy background investigations are among the obstacles to resettling more Syrian refugees in the United States. Some American lawmakers have publicly questioned whether the country should accept refugees from Syria, alleging that doing so could present national security issues. As a result, the Obama administration has sought to assure the public that all asylum seekers, including those from Syria, will continue to be subject to vigorous background checks performed by a host of government agencies, including the State Department; the Department of Homeland Security and its sub-agency, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service; the Office of Refugee Resettlement; and the Central Intelligence Agency; among others. Performing background checks for refugees from Syria has proved particularly complicated given the presence of the Islamic State in Syria and the lack of United States intelligence in the country. Thus far, the average wait time for Syrian asylum seekers to be cleared has been 18 months to two years. As a result, refugee rights advocates correctly question whether the United States can successfully resettle an additional 10,000 Syrian asylum seekers in a time-effective manner and express concern that even this increase amounts to a political gesture that is insufficient to offer the Syrian people humanitarian relief from the horrifying circumstances confronting millions.


    Next week, our office will explore the largely forgotten refugee crisis from Central America.



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    Jul 03, 2015

    After having volunteered last year at the family detention in Artesia, New Mexico representing immigrant women and children refugees, we knew we had to go to Dilley, Texas to bear witness to the largest family detention center in the United States and to do our part to help.  Presently, close to 1800 or more women and children are detained at this privately-operated prison.


    Family detention refers to the incarceration of immigrant women and children during their immigration process. It is a shameful practice that the Obama administration revived in response to the rise in individuals crossing the border in the summer of 2014. It is largely thought to be a political misfire by the administration to appear tough on the border in order to face less opposition in the reception of Executive Action, the implementation of which is presently ensnarled in a lengthy lawsuit.  If it was a political miscalculation, there is certainly no rationale for its continued existence except for the tremendous power of lobbyists and the greed of investors in private prisons.  Moreover, there is simply no justification to incarcerate women and children seeking protection in the United States. The vast majority of the influx of people crossing the border are seeking asylum from violence and conditions in their home country that do not support life.  From their stories corroborated by evidence and news and reports, some countries in Central America appear on the brink of societal collapse.  For a week, we listened to stories of horrific domestic and gang violence, sexual assault, child abuse, and death threats.  To take people who have suffered through these traumas and the dangerous journey the United States and incarcerate them is unconscionable.  Simply put, the detention of women and children does not reflect American values.

    Mexican Shelter Visits:

    We came to Texas a couple days early to head to the border and into Mexico to visit some migrant shelters that house recently deported Mexican immigrants and others still making their journey to the United States.

    We first visited a YMCA-run youth shelter in Piedras Negras, the town in Mexico on the other side of the border from the U.S. town, Eagle Pass. The youth shelter receives unaccompanied Mexican children who have been returned from the United States and need to be reunited with family members throughout Mexico.  While the facility was pleasant, the dejection and loneliness the children must experience arriving there is heart-wrenching. It is hard to fathom the situations that provoked children to try to make it the United States and how things went wrong such that the children were returned to Mexico.  We heard of a child who had to watch his mother die on the treacherous border-crossing. Another child’s family members were shot in the legs in front of him for refusing to pay an extra extortion demanded by the coyotes.



    Next we visited “Casa Digna” (Casa del Migrante Frontera Digna, Home of the Migrant, Dignified Border) also in Piedras Negras. In sharp contrast to the spacious and clean facility for children, Casa Digna was cramped and rundown.  While we were there, dozens of men arrived having recently been deported.  When the United States deports people to Mexico, a Mexican government agency (Repatriacion Humana, “Human Repatriation”) at the border receives them and they are given the option to get a ride to one of these adult migrant shelters. The shelters are not government run, rather operated by churches dependent on donations. One of the biggest problems reported at these migrant shelters is that often U.S. immigration officials destroy individuals’ identifications and do not return the little money people had on them such that when they are deported to Mexican border, they cannot board a bus or plane in Mexico to get to their actual home.  This final indignity on top of the deportation means that many deportees depend on these migrant shelters for a few days for shelter and food as they wait for new identity documents.  This situation makes border towns all the more dangerous – to have a large, stagnant population of vulnerable people who but for their lack of identifications because U.S. officials destroyed them would be on their way home. Central American and other Mexican migrants also pass through Casa Digna on their way to the United States. After recent mass graves found in Mexico of Central American refugees presumably killed by human trafficking networks, the shelter is now required to register its inhabitants in case their information is later needed to find someone. The shelters face complex security concerns and have strict curfews and rules for opening the gate to enter, tall walls with glass spikes on the top, and video surveillance. Coyotes have tried to come back for people with dubious and nefarious intentions for unfinished jobs and unpaid debts.

    Looking at these men recently dropped off by the Mexican government, one could not help but think this must be one of the lowest points in their lives.  They sat in plastic chairs in the patio of the migrant shelter batting flies.  Our privilege to “visit” the shelter knowing the next day we would easily drive across the border back the United States without incident oozed as the humility of the men was crushing.

    We were impressed at Casa Digna, a Catholic run shelter, that, despite their lack of resources, they were constructing a separate small bedroom for LGBT migrants to feel more secure in their stay.



    After Casa Digna, we drove along the Mexican side of the Rio Grande to the Mexican border town of Acuña.  The river that separates the United States from Mexico is a strong reminder of the arbitrary political and geographical construct of the border that can be so determinative in the type of life that one has.  In Acuña, we were received by a wonderful woman whom we connected with through contacts from our time in Artesia. She took us to a third migrant shelter, Casa Emmaus, which is located in walking distance from the branch of Repatriación Humana that receives deportees in Acuña.  Because the train (“la Bestia”) that migrants take from Central America to the U.S. border does not pass through Acuña, there are many fewer immigrants trying to cross there.  At Casa Emmaus, we talked to two teenage girls who had been returned from the border, one had tried many times to enter the United State unsuccessfully. I asked what was next for them and immediately regretted my words. The next day our host took us around to see the maquiladores in Acuña which are the main economic livelihood of the city. She also showed us La Presa de la Amistad, a giant manmade lake that divides the United States and Mexico.  We then made our way to Dilley, Texas to begin our volunteer work.


    The facility in Dilley is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private prison corporation, publicly traded on the stock market.  You too can invest in the deprivation of liberty of refugees. The home to at least two other detention centers, Dilley’s town motto is “A Slice of the Good Life.” It has a population of around 4,000. It is about an hour and half from San Antonio and, apart from the two-person permanent staff of the pro bono project that assembled in April, there are no legal services in Dilley. Like Artesia, this project is dependent on leapfrog representation of lawyers who come in on Sunday and leave the following Saturday.  Unlike Artesia which had between 400-600 women and children at its height, Dilley has over 1800 and climbing.  The mission of legal representation of these women and children for this project is behemoth. The two permanent staff possess awe-inspiring energy, efficiency, intelligence, creativity, compassion, patience and determination.

    The Orwellian nature of the CCA facility and the immigration policy that guides it pervades all aspects of the detention center.  The CCA facility in Dilley is comprised of acres of trailers. Within the complex, the facility is divided into “neighborhoods” with names like “Red Bird,” “Brown Bear,” and “Green Frog,” as a colleague pointed out, as if out of a fractured nursery rhyme.  The women are “residents” of these neighborhoods, not detainees or inmates in trailers or cells or pods.  The legal team works in the visitation trailer. Some women and children may have to walk more than a half mile to get to the attorneys. Although the conditions of this massive complex did appear to be better that those of Artesia, while we were there we learned of a new policy that the CCA officers have been coming into the trailers where the women and children sleep at 11pm and turning on the lights and making them sleep with the lights on, a tactic used on Guantanamo detainees.  The legal team is not allowed to bring in cell phones and must bring in their own hotspots to have internet access.  Access to counsel is a reoccurring theme. Just the weeks before we arrived, female attorneys were denied entrance to the facility because of underwire bras.  The courts are also trailers and operate via Video Television Conference (VTC).  The judges and government attorneys are in immigration court in Miami, Florida, while the volunteers sit in at a table inside the court trailer in Dilley.  Another Orwellian feature of what is happening in Dilley that we confronted in women’s individual sagas is the misnomer by the Obama administration of “family detention.”  Many of these women and children entered with their partners, or parents, or siblings, or nephews and nieces.  Upon apprehension, these other family members were stripped away and bused or flown to different detention facilities, breaking apart the family, further disabling a family from presenting their claim for protection particularly when the entire family was fleeing persecution.  At Dilley (and Artesia), family units were broken down into simply pairs of women and children.

    Like Artesia, our volunteer roles included conducting intakes and orientations to the women and children, prepping and occasionally accompanying the women to interviews with the asylum office, and representing them in requesting bond before the immigration officials and the immigration court.  The women and children arrive to Dilley in different procedural postures of their case.  Many are waiting for an interview with the asylum office (called a credible or reasonable fear interview) to determine whether they meet the basic requirements for asylum in order to be allowed to present their full asylum case to an immigration judge further down the road.  At the present moment, there are only four asylum officers for the entire population resulting in a huge bottleneck for women to get passed this initial step of the process. Only after passing this interview does immigration give certain women bond amounts to pay to leave the facility and generally only after passing this interview are they allow them to proceed with their asylum cases.  The bond amounts that the immigration officials were setting for these women and child were inaccessible sums that generally sentenced them to indefinite detention. As such, one of our roles as attorneys was going before the immigration court and requesting that the bonds be lowered.  Another attorney with us this week likened the excessive bond amounts presented to the women as the last link the gang/coyote extortion chain that these women go through to extricate themselves from violence.

    Because of the sheer number of women and children in Dilley, this pro bono project places significant emphasis on empowering the women to represent themselves during different phases of their cases while detained simply because there may not be lawyer beside them at all phases. Coming from my own practice, sending women and children’s into a lions’ den unaccompanied by legal representation seems so foreign and frightening; however, in the time it took to sit by a woman during one of her asylum interviews, an attorney could see five to ten other women. The project would orient the women to the law of asylum, individually listen to their stories and help the woman frame her story within the law, and send her to her interview alone with words of encouragement.   Over the course of this week, I was reminded of the strength and courage this women possess and the power of their own words. These are valiant women.

    As in Artesia, Dilley holds a significant portion of indigenous women from Guatemala with varying levels of understanding of the Spanish language. Some speak Spanish well, others can manage, and a smaller group speak virtually no Spanish.  More than once a woman came to sit in front of me with an index card “I speak Q’anjob’al (or K’iche’, or Mam). I need an interpreter.” In the attorney trailer, with no cell phone access and a ban on Google voice, Skype and other internet-based calls, there were no interpreters.  I can say fairly confidently that none of the CCA staff spoke Q’anjob’al, Mam, K’iche’ or other indigenous languages.  Our meetings with these women would include lots of miming and drawing to reach a minimal level of understanding of their case.  The obstacles these indigenous, non-Spanish speaking women face are tremendous.  Presumably, some of the other women held in Dilley who also spoke their indigenous language but had more command of the Spanish language are assisting them.


    The conduct of Custom and Border Protection (CBP) at the border is appalling.  Most of the women and children report being placed in “hieleras” (iceboxes), which are CBP’s holding rooms, upon apprehension. Some were told that the rooms were not freezing, but rather the women and children just felt that way because they had been walking in the desert. CBP also fills out an initial screening form with the apprehended families which nearly 100% of the time states that they came to “live and work,” rather than seeking protection.  CBP documents state this motive to “live and work” even for a five-year-old child. All the women deny stating this was their motive for coming. However, later in their asylum process, this CBP document is often presented by the government to impeach the women in their asylum case.


    When being forced to go forward with the full merits of their asylum cases from custody, the majority of these women are winning their cases.  Most of these wins have been with the assistance of dedicated pro-bono counsel from around the United States, but there have also been pro-se wins.  In other words, these women and children meet the definition of a refugee as defined in the United Nations Refugee Convention and we are required to offer them protection in the United States. While we were in Dilley, one woman won her case on the same day her friend lost her case. The woman who won her case chose to stay in the Dilley facility one more night to comfort her friend.


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    New Practice Advisory: Strategies for Suppressing Evidence and Terminating Removal Proceedings for Child Clients!

    Mar 31, 2015

    My three co-authors and I are very excited to share a new practice advisory on Strategies for Suppressing Evidence and Terminating Removal Proceedings for Child Clients published by the Vera Institute of Justice and written by Helen Lawrence, Kristen Jackson, Rex Chen, and Kathleen Glynn.  It provides comprehensive guidance to filing termination motions in immigration court to defend children.  Examples include where there is a defective Notice to Appear, the government failed to provide advisals on an I-770 form, and a wide range of government mistreatment of children in detention.  We also discuss practical tips for representing children.  We are very grateful for support from the Vera Institute and many people who helped us write the advisory.  We hope attorneys will consider these strategies to stand up for children by challenging unlawful government action as the government continues to place an unprecedented number of children in adversarial removal proceedings.

    Suppression & Termination PA – without Appendices

    Suppression & Termination PA – Appendices

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