United Nations Conference on the Status of Women: The Need for Gender Parity within Human Rights Bodies

For an introduction to the Conference on the Status of Women read here 

Uruguay, Sweden, Liechtenstein, and The Gambia sponsored a panel entitled Closing the Gender Gap: Achieving Gender Parity in UN Human Rights Bodies at the United Nations Conference on the Status of Women (CSW), which examined the continuation of historical male domination within international human rights bodies through an intercultural feminist view point. Female inclusion within the UN, as well as other international human rights bodies is crucial because these entities must accurately represent humanity if they are to be considered legitimate and effective. There is a current lack of considering gender as a critical issue when discussing human rights. This creates a problem when analyzing human rights violations such as sexual and gender-based violence, human trafficking, and modern slavery – all of which disproportionately affect women and girls due to global, cultural, and societal norms.

The Gqual Campaign was created to accurately report female representation within international human rights bodies as well as to promote female nominations after they found that, “women are underrepresented in virtually all international bodies for monitoring and developing international law, human rights, and international relations.” In 2015, Gqual conducted a study illuminating the stark lack of female representation in positions of power within international human rights bodies. Women occupied a mere 17% of all positions within regional and international tribunals. For example, within the five international tribunals, only 13 of the 72 judges were female. The lack of women nominated to international tribunals and monitoring bodies stems from historic exclusion of women based on cultural and societal norms.  

2016: the International Criminal Court, 2 Women 8 Men

Traditionally, women are secluded to the private sphere as caregivers, homemakers, domestic workers, etc., while men dominate the public sphere in government, trade, work abroad, etc. affording males the opportunity to exchange ideas, become confident in their abilities, and achieve economic independence. Through the continued enforcement of traditional roles, females are shut out from society and sequestered into ‘female only spaces.’ This practice dampens women’s experience, confidence, and voices, leaving women without the ability or confidence to enter male dominated spaces in order to participate in discussions and decision-making. Without female participation at a local level, there is little hope that women will gain the skills and experience required to sit on international human rights bodies in the future.

2015: the Inter-American Court of Humans Rights, 2 Women 4 Men

Furthermore, the continued trend of minimal or no female education exacerbates women’s inability to be nominated to international human rights bodies. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) conducted a study on women living in the rural mountains of Nepal, finding that a lack of formal education for girls resulted in a disproportionate number of women unable to speak the national language. Instead, the majority of mountain women solely spoke local dialects. This phenomenon is replicated in rural communities throughout the world. Lack of female education not only prohibits women from gaining the expertise needed to sit on international human rights bodies, but also bars them from participating in local decision-making meetings held in the national language, further silencing them and excluding them from important discussions.

All international human rights bodies must adopt a gender sensitive participatory approach in order to enhance women’s empowerment and inclusion in decision-making entities. ICIMOD indicates that the enforcement of traditional gender norms silences women, making them uncomfortable and unwilling to participate in male dominated decision-making bodies. The first step to achieve a gender participatory approach in international human rights entities is to create local female groups that allow women to freely discuss ideas and experiences and to propose solutions affording women the opportunity to gain experience in decision-making entities and gain confidence in their abilities. Next, women must be integrated into the existing international human rights bodies with the understanding that women offer unique and valid experiences, viewpoints, and solutions; and therefore must be viewed as equal members.  

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Forced Labor, Big Profits: One Dollar a Day in Detention Facilities

Last year people held at at a private immigration detention facility in Aurora, Colorado filed suit against the owner, The GEO Group, claiming that the company required them to work in the facility “Volunteer Work Program” and threatened solitary confinement to those who refused. The GEO Group receives contracts from the federal government to construct, manage, and/or provide other services related to the incarceration of people in federal prisons and immigrant detention facilities. Approximately 70% of migrant detainees are held in private run or owned facilities. Two companies, the GEO Group and CoreCivic, receive the lion’s share of these contracts – in 2015 housing nearly 80% of those detained in private facilities.

Under Federal Law, people held in immigrant detention may work to help maintain the facility and earn a small remuneration. The current rate was set in 1978 at a maximum of $1.00 a day (the Federal minimum wage in 1978 was $2.60 an hour). At the time, the daily average number of migrants held in detention was less than 4,000 people and none were housed in private facilities (CoreCivic – then known as the Corrections Corporation of America – received the first contract for a private detention facility in 1983, the Houston Processing Center).  Times have changed, but not the pay rate.

The GEO Corp, CoreCivic and other private companies use detainee labor to keep facilities clean, do maintenance and provide other services. By using detainee labor at the 1978 pay rate, the companies pad their profit margin significantly. GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez told Daily Beast, “the volunteer work program at immigration facilities as well as the wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government.” The company argues, they are not required to pay more – indeed Federal contracts only reimburse work done through the Voluntary Work Program at the $1.00 a day rate; if they pay more they lose money. If they have to bring in cleaning services, paying at least the federal minimum wage, they would lose significantly more. That a maximum daily wage of $1.00, paid to people held behind bars who were threatened into “volunteering,” is basically slave labor is beside the point – shareholders come first.

In the current environment nothing is more surprising than members of Congress defending forced labor in the name of corporate profit (pitched as tax savings). On March 7th of this year, eighteen Republican members of Congress wrote to the offices of the Attorney General and Secretaries of the Department of Labor and Immigrant and Custom Enforcement encouraging them to submit amicus briefs in defense of The GEO Group and other private prison companies. The letter is illuminating concerning the values animating federal immigration enforcement:

It would provide an unnecessary windfall to the detainees, and drain the federal government of limited taxpayer resources, to require contractors to pay these detainees anywhere between 800% – 1500% above what is currently required by law. These costs will simply be passed on to the taxpayers either through a required higher rate of contractual reimbursement or through increased detention costs generally.

It is worth parsing this section. “800%-1,500%” more than current law, means remuneration of $8 to $15 dollars A DAY. One wonders how a company cannot afford such wages, or the Federal government for that matter, to keep a facility clean!?!? Arguing that people in detention – who, it bears repeating, are in most cases simply waiting decisions on their status – would see one dollar an hour as a “windfall,” indeed such a windfall that they would want to stay in detention, is absurd.

If Federal immigrant enforcement measures are draining “limited taxpayer resources,” it is because the Federal government has chosen to adopt draconian measures that are unnecessary, and in some cases illegal, in order to expand detention to the current rate of 41,000 people a night, at a cost of $134 a day per detainee. This detention budget came to $2.6 billion in 2017, a large portion paid out to private companies. Trump wants the capacity expanded to 50,000 a night – a 25% increase. The GEO Group and CoreCivic gave Trump’s inauguration committee $250,000 each. The return on this investment promises to be huge.

In April of 2017, The GEO Group posted in BusinessWire:

GEO expects to design, finance, build, and operate the company-owned Facility [in Conroe, Texas] under a ten-year contract with ICE, inclusive of renewal option periods. The 1,000-bed Facility is scheduled for completion in the fourth quarter of 2018 and is expected to generate approximately $44 million in annualized revenues and returns on investment consistent with GEO’s company-owned facilities.

The press release went on to add: “We are very appreciative of the continued confidence placed in our company by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” said George C. Zoley, GEO’s Chairman and CEO.

Very appreciative indeed. Trading in the lives of human beings makes these companies a lot of money. And with members of Congress trying to shield them from having to actually pay some of the people who labor in these facilities, profits are booming.

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The United Nations Conference on the Status of Women: the Unequal Effects of Climate Change on Rural Women

This year, the United Nations held the 62nd annual Conference on the Status of Women (CSW) in order to gather the international community to discuss the importance and necessity for inclusion and empowerment of women on a global level and to propose strategies to enact positive change. The first CSW was held in 1947, two years after the inception of the United Nations, with the purpose of creating international conventions and standards to change existing discriminatory male-oriented legislation as well as to foster global awareness on the legitimacy of women’s issues.


Each year CSW adopts a theme based on the current global realities of women. The theme this year was Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls. As the name suggests, there is an array of issues that affect rural women and girls. This post focuses on a particular panel of interest: Harnessing Women’s Rights to Natural Resources to Advance the Status of Rural Women

Many assume that climate change affects people equally or affects them based on geographic location; however, this is not the case. Women are disproportionately impacted by climate change across the globe. This is often easier to see and understand in rural areas. Like in urban areas, rural women typically act as the primary caregivers and providers for the household. Rural women face unique challenges in this role in regards to collecting water and food. Due to the increased regularity and length of droughts, women are forced to travel further distances to gather water. Irregular weather patterns caused by climate change can lead to crop and livestock failure, forcing women to find alternative sources of nutrition. Both of these activities have physical tolls on women’s bodies and reduce their ability to actively participate in the formal economy.

In contrast, though urban women often act as the primary caregivers within homes as well, they do not face the same challenges rural women do when gathering necessary household resources. The unequal affect of climate change on urban women is better understood when examining the intersectionality between the lack of socioeconomic empowerment and female participation in the environmental decision making process. Globally, women are more likely than men to experience poverty, often rendering them reliant on community networks and social services. This makes it difficult for women to recover from natural disasters that affect the infrastructure, job market, and housing.

Mother and Child Post Hurricane Harvey

Along with the primary impacts of natural disasters (i.e. lack of shelter, food, water, etc.), women face more secondary impacts, including sexual and gender-based violence, loss or reduction of economic opportunities, and an increased workload. A prime example of this is their susceptibility to human trafficking post-natural disaster due to an increased vulnerability, need for economic stability, and lack of options. Further contributing to female economic disadvantages, the UN Women found that the female unpaid workload is more likely to increase following natural disasters because women are most likely to be tasked with caring for the ill or injured while the men continue to work, further limiting their economic opportunities. Girls were also more likely than boys to be taken out of school to aid with the domestic chores after a disaster, resulting in a lack of universal primary education and further disadvantaging females.

Given the unequal impact of climate change on women, there is an obvious need to include them in climate change decision-making bodies. However, the average representation of females in national and global climate negotiating bodies is currently less than 30%. Women, especially in rural areas, are more knowledgeable about local water systems and crop growth and are regularly forced to find alternative solutions to increase water and food availability by finding new areas to drill wells, using of modified seeds, etc., highlighting their ability to actively contribute to disaster planning and recovery. Furthermore, women account for 50% of the world’s population, and the bodies responsible for climate change response should therefore more accurately represent humanity.

In order to increase female representation in climate change decision-making, governmental and intergovernmental institutions must codify regulations enforcing gender equality in not only the environmental ministries but also gender and economic ministries. This will ensure equal representation, create a shift in cultural and societal norms that portray women as victims as opposed to equals, and create intersectionality between government efforts to address climate change and to empower women in order to make the link between climate change and gender.

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Fear as Strategy: Trump Administration Using Cruelty as Deterrence

Several articles in the past week have focused on the ways the Trump administration is employing fear tactics as means to punish migrants. To some degree deterrence has always been a part of U.S. policies aimed at limiting migration. Yet, the current administration seems intent on reaching a new level of cruelty that is both immoral—and illegal. By targeting asylum seekers, separating children and families, and using enforcement in a campaign to silence dissent among immigration activists, Trump’s team is reaching new lows.

Julianne Hing, writing for the Nation, underscores the ways Trump is using the exagerated threat of gang violence from Central America to justify crackdowns:

Without needing to change any laws, the White House has used the threat of gang violence and the need to protect national security as pretexts for draconian immigration policies. Yet the real aim has always been something else: to inflict maximum suffering as a means of pushing out unwanted newcomers as well as those whose extended presence in the country may threaten white supremacy.

She also notes the escalating attacks on immigrant rights activists:

In addition to ICE agents staking out courthouses, school drop-off corners, and even hospitals—violating the agency’s own guidelines about not making arrests in “sensitive locations”—agents have also arrested or deported at least four outspoken immigrant-rights leaders in what activists call a calculated stroke of political retaliation. Recently, ICE arrested another, activist Alejandra Pablos, at a regular Tucson, Arizona, check-in on March 7.

John Burnett of NPR has also covered the increasing arrests of activists:

Activists across the country say they are being targeted by federal immigration authorities for speaking out at protests and accusing the government of heavy-handed tactics. The Trump administration has warned that anyone in the country illegally could be arrested and deported under tough new enforcement rules. And federal officials deny allegations of retaliation. But the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups say they have documented two dozen cases of immigrant activists and volunteers who say they have been arrested or face fines for their work. They say many of the activists who are undocumented don’t have criminal records and only came to the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement because of their activism.

The ACLU, Human Rights First, and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies have filed a suit against the Department of Homeland Security regarding the Administration’s use of a deterrence strategy targeting asylum seekers and other. The practices violate U.S. law. From their filing on deterrence strategy:

Detaining asylum seekers to deter others, without even considering whether individuals are flight risks or dangers to the community, violates the Parole Directive (which generally bars the detention of asylum seekers who pose neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community), the Immigration and Naturalization Act (“INA”), regulations promulgated thereunder, and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Indeed, even if DHS’s current parole policy were not based on deterrence, it would be unlawful for DHS to engage in virtually blanket detention of asylum seekers without individualized determinations of flight risk or danger to the community. The fact that the Policy is based on general deterrence—which cannot be a basis for civil detention—makes it even clearer that the Policy is unlawful. See R.I.L-R., 80 F. Supp. at 189.

Read the full articles:

Julienne Hing, “For Trump, Cruelty is the Point” The Nation, March 15, 2018

John Burnett, “Immigration Advocates Warn ICE is Retaliating for Activism”, NPR, March 16, 2018

Class Action Suit Against DHS filed by the ACLU, Human Rights First, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.

You can also read our recent blog, Torture by Another Name: Immigrant Detention in the United States evaluating abusive tactics employed by the administration in violation of international human rights.

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The Cycle of Criminalization in U.S. Immigration Policy

Last week, visitors from the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) joined us at the Quixote Center for a conversation on migrant detention and the prison-industrial complex. We discussed the brutality of ICE, the injustice of Operation Streamline, and the expansion of private prisons. But there was one topic we kept coming back to: the cycle of criminalization.

The narrative we have heard from the current administration portrays Central American immigrants as violent gang members who bring crime to our country and must be deported. In his State of the Union address, Trump called on Congress “to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13 and other criminal gangs to break into our country.” His scare tactics are designed to stoke racist, anti-immigrant sentiment. His claims are also wildly misleading.

MS-13 is not a foreign threat and it is not a major danger to the United States. The gang began in Los Angeles in the 1980s, with the early group of teenagers looking for community, not violence. Many of them were the children of immigrants from El Salvador, a country that had been rocked by unrest and a civil war heavily funded by the U.S. government. But the Los Angeles police force launched massive “anti-gang” operations during that time that put many of these teens into the prison system.

As The Washington Post put it, “those sweeps, part of a militaristic zero-tolerance response to the nation’s social problems, failed to acknowledge that such problems were the direct result of underfunded social programs and systemic marginalization. Instead of serving as a deterrent, they further weakened social ties and increased exclusion, and thus facilitated the transformation and consolidation of MS-13 into a serious criminal enterprise.”

The situation was worsened by the Clinton administration, whose immigration policy deported thousands and sent the gang members back to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Once there, they faced similarly harsh policing and few opportunities outside of their gang. Their violence now drives many to the U.S. as a means of escape and the cycle continues.

MS-13 was not just formed in the United States, it exists precisely because of the United States. A U.S. funded war gave rise to their displacement. A militarized police force branded them criminals. The prison system gave them few options. Deportation gave them fewer.

But this story of criminalization is not limited to MS-13 members. Our current system treats all but a certain elite category of immigrants as criminals. ICE sends undocumented people to detention centers where they can be held indefinitely in high-security facilities. When they are deported back to their country of origin, stigma often follows. Many assume that detention and deportation in the U.S. are indicative of criminal behavior. It may be harder for the deported person to get a job or regain community trust when they have been seen as a criminal, so they may end up in prison again.

By criminalizing immigration, we are not just being inhumane, we are also participating in a cycle where the most severe consequences fall outside our borders. Despite political rhetoric, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the U.S. born population. Meanwhile, violence increases in the Northern Triangle, with El Salvador becoming the world’s most violent country not at war. Our prison-industrial complex is not just a failed response to crime, it is a breeding ground for it. When immigrant populations flee violence that we helped to create it is our duty to provide sanctuary, not jail cells. But the path we walk now is an endless loop of violence. 

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Torture by Another Name: Immigrant Detention in the United States

U.S. immigration enforcement practices violate internationally recognized human rights. They have for years. However, under the Trump administration the scale of violations has grown, with increases in mass arrests that ignore asylum claims, expansion of detention under conditions that are inhumane, and a recent spike in the use of family separation as a tactic to further punish migrants. These practices dehumanize migrants. And in combination, might well constitute torture.

In February an advance copy of a report on migration from Nils Melzer, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, was released. While the report does not name specific states, the multitude of examples of violations of core principles of human rights in the treatment of migrants reads like a summary of U.S. immigration policy.

In response to increasing numbers of…”irregular” migrants arriving at their borders, many States have initiated an escalating cycle of repression and deterrence designed to discourage new arrivals, and involving measures such as the criminalisation and detention of irregular migrants, the separation of family members, inadequate reception conditions and medical care, and the denial or excessive prolongation of status determination or habeas corpus proceedings, including expedited returns in the absence of such proceedings. Many States have even started to physically prevent irregular migrant arrivals, whether through border closures, fences, walls and other physical obstacles, through the externalisation of their borders and procedures, or through extra-territorial “pushback” and “pullback” operations, often in cooperation with other States or even non-State actors. (Melzer 2018, 4)

The United States is a signatory to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and therefore bound by the Covenant’s principles. Article 7 of the ICCPR states “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The UN Special Rapporteur’s report on migration makes clear that States that employ punitive measures such as prolonged and arbitrary detention, family separation, and that fail to provide safe conditions for migrants under administrative hold violate this standard. This assessment would include the practices of the United States. Even more so, it is the clear intent of U.S. policy makers to deter people from migrating to the United States and/or seek asylum here; a motivation that calls into question the entire edifice of U.S. immigration enforcement.

The issues here are numerous. For the purposes of this article I will focus on the ways U.S. law and practices concerning immigrant detention violate international human rights through arbitrary detention practices, inhumane conditions, and the breaking up of families.

Arbitrary Detention

Immigrant detention as practiced in the United States violates human rights law through deprivation of liberty, in often unsanitary or unsafe circumstance, for indefinite periods of time, and on an arbitrary basis without reference to individualized assessment. According to Melzer’s review:

Just as any other form of deprivation of liberty, any detention of migrants must be justified for each individual as lawful, necessary and proportionate in the circumstances and, in case of administrative or preventative detention, must be periodically re-assessed as it extends in time.  Provided that these generic conditions are met on an individual basis, “(a)sylum seekers who unlawfully enter a State party’s territory may be detained for a brief initial period in order to document their entry, record their claims and determine their identity if it is in doubt. To detain them further while their claims are being resolved would be arbitrary in the absence of particular reasons specific to the individual, such as an individualized likelihood of absconding, a danger of crimes against others or a risk of acts against national security. The decision must consider relevant factors case by case and not be based on a mandatory rule for a broad category; must take into account less invasive means of achieving the same ends, such as reporting obligations, sureties or other conditions to prevent absconding; and must be subject to periodic re-evaluation and judicial review.”  

Over the last 24 years the United States has consistently increased immigrant detentions – criminalizing irregular border crossings, including by those seeking political asylum. Immigrant detentions have grown nearly 600% between 1994 and 2017 – from daily average detention of 6,785 migrants in 1994 to 41,000 in 2017.  In direct violation of international law, over 70% of detainees are subject to mandatory detention as a class – there is no individualized assessment prior to detention in these cases. Detentions are thus arbitrary, giving no weight to due process. Indeed, just last week the Supreme Court ruled that immigrants may be detained indefinitely with no mandatory periodic review for bail. This is a ruling that denies the most basic due process rights, and thus allows for the further institutionalization of practices that violate international law.

In addition to people held in detention facilities, there are an additional 15,000 migrants being held in federal prisons on any given day after being prosecuted for “illegal entry” violations. A joint report by Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies documents violations that emerged from Operation Streamline and related policies that have criminalized migration. They note:

Almost 70,000 migrants — including some who may have had valid asylum claims — were criminally prosecuted at the border, during federal fiscal year 2015. Improper entry and re-entry are now the two top criminal charges being filed in our federal court system; together they comprise 49 percent of the entire number of the cases led for federal prosecution nationwide.

Once released from federal prison, migrants may be transferred to ICE for detention until their asylum cases are reviewed – leading to additional months of incarceration. Criminally prosecuting people who self-identify to border agents as seeking political asylum is a violation of international law. Again there is no individualized discernment.  As Human Rights First has documented:

[Border Patrol] agents in sectors along the border indicated that they refer people for prosecution irrespective of their intention to seek asylum. It appears that prosecutors and judges do not take asylum into account when determining the charges or sentences for illegal entry or illegal reentry. In the four federal court districts Human Rights First visited, not one U.S. Attorney’s Office had a policy of exempting asylum seekers from charges of illegal entry or illegal reentry.

Migrants who attempt to present details of their case for asylum in federal court are told the court has no jurisdiction and that such determinations must wait until AFTER they serve their sentence for illegal entry. Hearings in which migrants are charged en masse are common.  Additionally, Human Rights First found that, “Operation Streamline combines each defendant’s initial appearance, preliminary hearing, plea, and sentencing into one hearing that can last less than one minute.”

Human Rights First reports that the Trump administration’s orders to expand these practices violate international human rights:

These directives subvert U.S. treaty obligations that prohibit the penalization of refugees for unauthorized entry or presence—protections created in the wake of World War II after many nations treated refugees seeking asylum in their countries as “illegal” entrants. As a result, asylum seekers are subjected to a deeply dehumanizing system that punishes them for seeking protection and threatens to return them to countries where they will face persecution—a violation of the Refugee Convention.

Detention Conditions Constitute Inhumane Treatment

Conditions in detention facilities vary. As detentions have expanded, however, there are increasing reports of deplorable conditions. Melzer writes that inhumane conditions in detention are a violation of rights and border on torture.

The Human Rights Committee has repeatedly considered that “the combination of the arbitrary character of the […] detention, its protracted and/or indefinite duration, the refusal to provide information and procedural rights to the [detainees] and the difficult conditions of detention are cumulatively inflicting serious psychological harm upon them, and constitute treatment contrary to article 7 of the Covenant.” Indeed, the experience of being subjected to detention that is neither necessary nor proportionate to serve any legitimate purpose, particularly in conjunction with its prolonged and potentially indefinite duration, and with the absence of any effective legal remedy has been shown to add significant mental and emotional stress to the already extremely vulnerable situation of irregular migrants, with many cases reported of self-harm, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

In December of 2017 the Office of Inspector General for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement released its report on detention conditions. The OIG found, “problems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.” They noted that,

[u]pon entering some facilities, detainees were housed incorrectly based on their criminal history. Further, in violation of standards, all detainees entering one facility were strip searched. Available language services were not always used to facilitate communication with detainees. Some facility staff reportedly deterred detainees from filing grievances and did not thoroughly document resolution of grievances. Staff did not always treat detainees respectfully and professionally, and some facilities may have misused segregation. Finally, we observed potentially unsafe and unhealthy detention conditions.

Humans Rights First also released a report last week on conditions found in detention facilities in New Jersey. The report, Ailing Justice, includes the following general findings:

  • Many asylum seekers and immigrants remain in unnecessary, lengthy, and prolonged detention—some for over a year—due to a lack of access to viable release mechanisms;
  • Detention harms their medical and mental health, creates barriers to access to counsel, and hurts their chances of securing relief from deportation;
  • Asylum seekers and other immigrants languish under harsh and inhumane conditions, conditions essentially identical to those in many criminal correctional facilities. Many detained immigrants, particularly non-English speakers, endure frequent racist comments, harassment, and discrimination from medical and correctional staff;
  • Many detained people report substandard or denial of medical care, long waits to be seen by a medical professional, and a lack of proper medication.

Evidence from other sites make clear there is a pattern of inhuman conditions at facilities throughout the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented violations at facilities throughout the southern United States. An LA Times report similarly found deplorable conditions at facilities in California.

The stress that people are put under in detention centers is enormous, and yet it is unnecessary. Community release programs have proven to be highly effective for ensuring people return for hearings on their status. When it occurs, immigrant detention is supposed to be a temporary administrative hold. Immigrants are not criminals! To treat migrants in such a highly punitive manner is a violation of internationally recognized rights, and has the impact of creating (or exacerbating existing) mental health trauma. There were three suicides at the facilities in New Jersey last year, and in just the last six months, a dozen emergency mental health calls. Almost all those detained exhibit signs of stress. The conditions are poor, they do not know when they will be able to leave, and often have limited or no access to counsel. It is a level of cruelty that is shocking when meted out against people who are simply trying to make a life, and in many cases have already fled incredible violence!

Family Separation and Detention of Children

Among the unnecessary cruelties visited upon some migrants to the United States is the detention of children and/or the removal of children from parents. Melzer argues that:  

the possibility of detaining children as a measure of last resort, which may apply in other contexts such as juvenile criminal justice, is not applicable in immigration proceedings as it would conflict with the principle of the best interests of the child and the right to development. Accordingly, the detention of children based solely on their own or their parents’ irregular migration status has authoritatively been found to be arbitrary.

Nevertheless, the United States routinely detains children and families. The practice of family detention has been widely criticized, and yet seems to be accelerating. The Trump administration’s decision to end “catch and release” programs means that individuals and families detained at the border are no longer released to families or organizations within the U.S. pending a hearing on their immigration status. The practice, like general detention practices, is arbitrary, absent individualized assessments.

The current administration’s efforts to ramp up federal prosecution of migrants who cross the border, under the direction of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, leads to an even more tragic situation in which children are removed from their parents’ care. If a family is detained at the border, and parents charged with a federal crime, the parents end up in federal prison awaiting trial. Children are then removed to juvenile detention facilities, often hundreds of miles away. Communication between children and parents is minimal. Parents find themselves in the position of desperately looking for children, even as they are themselves literally behind bars. Even in cases where parents are not being criminally prosecuted, children might be separated.

In December a coalition of organizations including the Immigration Justice Campaign, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services, and RAICES, among others, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security over family separation incidents that appear to have increased dramatically over the second half of 2017. The authors of the report argue, “[f]amily unity is recognized as a fundamental human right, enshrined in both domestic and international law. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the right to family unity is ‘perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by [the Supreme] Court.’”  Despite this fundamental right, reporting organizations, “have noticed an alarming increase in instances of family members who arrived together but were intentionally separated by U.S. immigration officials without a clear or reasonable justification, as a means of punishment and/or deterrence and with few to no mechanisms to locate, contact, or reunite with separated family members.”

There are clearly inadequate guidelines in place for managing family separation. As the authors argue:

DHS and its components have consistently demonstrated that they are unable to manage the separation of family members in a legal and ethical manner. Family members are given little to no information on what happens to those from whom they are separated, including how to locate, contact, or reunite with them. DHS and its components continue to lack the ability to track familial relationships of individuals who are transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody or to coordinate mechanisms to work with ORR within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or the Department of Justice (DOJ) to facilitate location of, contact with, or release and reunification with separated family members.

The lack of care involved in the treatment of the most vulnerable is shocking. In April of 2017, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services, KIND, and the Women’s Refugee Commission released a report on family separation practices that demonstrates the lack of coordination across the agencies involved, leading to an inability to track family members and seemingly no concern given to the relationships between children and their parents. Authors argue:

Family unity is important not only to maintain the integrity of the family unit, but also because its destruction has a detrimental impact on liberty, access to justice, and protection. It also negatively impacts emotional and psychological development and well-being, creates security and economic difficulties, and strips the dignity of an individual and their family as a whole.

It is clear that the institutional weaknesses (and seeming lack of concern) have not been addressed, even as the practice of family separation has increased. Though specific motivations for increasing this tactic are not given by DHS, “in early March 2017, then DHS Secretary Kelly stated that the department was formally considering a policy of separating children from their parents at the border in order to deter their migration to the United States.” Though Kelly backed off this threat during later Congressional testimony, current practice suggests the DHS is sending a message: If you try to come to the United States seeking protection, you may lose your children.


The bulk of U.S. immigration law and enforcement practices that target irregular migration violate international law. While the Trump administration is doubling down on some of the worst violations, this administration was also handed an institutional framework for immigration enforcement that was already deeply flawed. Reference to international law rarely moves U.S. policy makers, who by and large view human rights law as an infringement on sovereignty. Indeed, in ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights the U.S. congress attached reservations to Article 7 bans on torture and cruel and unusual punishment. However, it is important for us to understand that ongoing U.S. violations have the effect of undermining enforcement of human rights globally.

The Trump administration is requesting a 25% expansion of detention capacity in the coming fiscal year – which will increase average daily detention to 50,000 people! Arrests and criminal prosecutions under federal law are increasing. Family separation as a tactic seems to be increasing based on the assessment of organizations that work with migrant families. The conditions under which migrants are held have been shown to be inadequate, even by the DHS’s own Office of Inspector General. All of these practices violate international human rights law, and in some cases, U.S. law. People have a fundamental right to migrate, to seek asylum, and to live free of inhumane treatment. U.S. immigration policy fails to respect these rights.

The United States war on migration must end. It is clear that it will only end if people mobilize in solidarity with migrants being detained and force policy makers to change tactics. There is limited legal recourse domestically – and the Trump administration seems determined to ignore what standards exist, or press the law to its limit, all in order to score political points by scapegoating migrants. We must all push back against these efforts and demand a fundamental respect for the human rights of migrants.

An immigrant detained in New Jersey told investigators, “I came to the United States because I considered it to be a fortress of human rights, but now I know the opposite.” This is our country today. We must change.

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Sessions’ Power Grab on Immigration Rules

Image Credit: Donkey Hotey

On March 5, 2018 Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the unusual step of vacating a 2014 ruling of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC) explains, “In this case, the immigration judge decided that an asylum applicant’s claim did not deserve a merits hearing. Instead of a hearing at which he would have had the opportunity to testify, present witnesses, file evidence, and present legal arguments, the immigration judge simply denied the case on the written application alone. The case was appealed and the BIA concluded that all asylum applicants have a right to a hearing, and remanded the case back to the immigration judge for that purpose.”

The Board of Immigration Appeals serves as the appellate court for immigration proceedings, which operate parallel to the federal court system. The Attorney General has the authority to review BIA decisions, and in doing so Sessions seems intent on pressing his authority to the limit. As Tal Kotan, writing for CNN, notes, “The attorney general has the authority to refer any Board of Immigration Appeals decision to his or her office for review, and can single-handedly overturn decisions and set interpretations of immigration law that become precedent followed by the immigration courts.” The danger is obvious. Sessions has repeatedly shown himself willing to use his office to limit the rights of immigrants, especially those who seek asylum.

In addition to the above mentioned case, Sessions is also reviewing another asylum case involving the rights of women seeking asylum as they flee situations of domestic abuse.  Sessions has requested interested parties to submit briefs on the questions, “Whether, and under what circumstances, being a victim of private criminal activity constitutes a cognizable ‘particular social group’ for purposes of an application for asylum or withholding of removal.” The framing of the questions leaves open the possibility that Sessions could vacate rulings regarding migrants fleeing gang violence and other criminal activity perpetuated by non-state actors. This would clearly have a dramatic impact on asylum claims from people fleeing violence in Central America and many other areas.  

The continued infringement on the rights of people seeking asylum must end. The long-term impact of Sessions ruling remains unclear. However, his effort to exert unilateral authority to shape immigration law is a frightening precedent.

Read more about this case on TASSC’s blog.

For more information on the ongoing asylum review, see CNN.

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Inspirational and Influential Women of the World: Wangari Maathai

Part II of the Inspirational and Influential Women of the World Blog Series

“Some of our human rights is environmental rights.” – Wangari Maathai

We all know that the #FutureIsFemme 🙂 but we also have to take a step back to acknowledge the remarkable women who helped paved that way. One African queen, in particular, is Wangari Maathai, Kenyan activist and founder of the Green Belt Movement.

Madame Maathai was born in 1940 in the rural compound of Nyeri, Kenya. An environmental scholar that studied in the U.S., Germany, and later Kenya, Madame Maathai returned to Kenya to receive her doctorate degree in veterinary anatomy in the late 1970s. She was the first woman in the East and Central African region to earn her doctorate. Her work as a department chair and professor for the University of Nairobi was short-lived in comparison to her grassroots environmental activism which began in the early 1980s and lasted until her death in 2011. She began her activism by being an active member (and later chairwoman) for the National Council of Women for Kenya. It was in this position that she informed members and communities about the importance of planting trees. Her commitment to the environment and the people of Kenya as a whole was relentless and no one, regardless of wealth or power, was immune to it:

“In the 1980s Maathai led a courageous fight against the construction of a skyscraper scheduled for construction in the middle of Uhuru park, Nairobi’s most important public space. Her vocal opposition to the location of the proposed complex led the government of President Daniel Arap Moi to label both Maathai and the Green Belt Movement ‘subversive.‘ She was vilified in Parliament and in the press and forced to vacate her office of 10 years with 24 hours’ notice. Nevertheless, thanks to Maathai’s opposition, foreign investors withdrew their support for the Uhuru Park complex and the project was canceled.” (Goldman Prize)

Madame Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, with the premise of paying local women to plant trees in their community. An organization which started off with an environmental focus soon elevated itself to a human rights organization. She allowed people to see their growth and power by planting trees which made her a threat to the Kenyan government but ultimately a hero to not only the people of Kenya but all over the world. She worked with communities, mostly women around different parts of Kenya, to plant at least 20 million trees while she was alive (Nobel Prize). Today, the number of trees planted has surpassed 51 million (Green Belt Movement). Her work soon spilled over to neighboring countries in which tree planting initiatives began in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe. In 2004 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because of her human rights and environmental conservation work.

In 2011, Wangari Maathai, passed away from ovarian cancer. She was an author, politician, environmentalist, professor, activist, but ultimately a visionary who saw that in order to properly help ourselves, we must help our environment.  Her impact continues to resonate across generations and countries because she was a fighter for justice; in fact, in Washington, D.C. there is a community garden named after her called Wangari Gardens. Today, her legacy continues to remain intact because of the continuous work of the Green Belt Movement which is still a positive force within Kenya.   

“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.”

Wangari Maathai 

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Activism in Retrospect

During the last two weeks of February, the Quixote Center was involved in actions of solidarity for Dreamers and the people of Honduras. I attended the Honduras Awareness Tour (Feb. 22) and the Catholic Day of Action for Dreamers (Feb. 27) and was equally moved by both events that called us to be a catalyst for change. Below are my reflections on these experiences.

Honduras Awareness Tour

On February 22, I attended the Honduras Awareness Tour in its final stop in Washington, D.C. The three-city tour was an opportunity for Honduran journalists and human rights activists, Joaquin Mejia and Claudia Mendoza, to update the public on the current conditions of Honduras. It was only befitting that the tour ended in our nation’s capital since both speakers emphasized the destabilizing role the U.S. has played in its foreign policy towards Latin America, in particular, Honduras, starting with the Obama administration’s legitimization of the 2009 coup in which democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power by the Honduran military (NCR). For a country that claims to promote democracy and is even considering punishing other countries for not upholding democracy (as seen, for example, in the NICA Act), the U.S. position to dismiss democracy in Honduras by engaging with the Honduran military speaks volumes about the continuation of foreign policies that disregard the plight of the people of Honduras.

The event began with disturbing news reported by the event host, Oscar Chacon (Executive Director of Alianza Americas). He told the audience that Mejia’s family was still receiving death threats for his role of using Radio Progreso to discuss the conditions of Honduras. We also heard that one of Mendoza’s loved one’s passed away from an illness the night before. There before us stood two fearless people, determined to bring a message despite personal loss. The message, simply put, is that Honduras is suffering. Their democracy is being choked and as U.S. citizens we need to hold our government accountable for these actions and demand change. Why is our government still sending military aid to Honduras, a country where activists are met with death (#BertaVive)?.   

Overall the event provided a much-needed update on the conditions in Honduras. This is a U.S. concern as well since the people of Honduras need us to stand with them. They need us to raise our voices to a level that demands change in U.S. foreign policy. We need to support avenues of authentic journalism like Radio Progreso and the many other organizations in Honduras being harassed in an effort made to silence them. Now more than ever it is important to stand with the people of Honduras.

Catholic Day of Action for Dreamers

The final Tuesday in February was a day of both hope and sorrow. On February 27, Quixote Center staff took part in the Catholic Day of Action for Dreamers, a peaceful protest in Washington, D.C. that encouraged Catholics and non-Catholics to elevate voices in support Dreamers and demand their right to stay in the U.S. The first year of the Trump administration has been a disaster for immigrant families. The administration’s dehumanizing rhetoric and willingness to use families to create a deal for a misconceived border wall is, frankly, disgusting. 

QC staff: (left to right) Mfon Edet, Jessica DeCou, Jocelyn Trainer

The protest was an opportunity to stand with our neighbors, families, and friends who are Dreamers, during this stressful time in their life. Have you ever been in a situation when you didn’t know where you were going to live or have to face the possibility that your family could be split apart? The amount of stress those types of concerns come with is too heavy to bear alone. We need to support immigration reform that leads to paths to citizenship for not only Dreamers but all immigrants who have built lives here.

The number of people that showed up in support of Dreamers was beautiful to witness. There was mass in the morning at St. Peters on Capitol Hill and a rally in front of the Senate building in which different activists spoke about the much-needed change in our immigration policies. The protest eventually moved inside of the Senate building where protesters met in the rotunda to pray. Soon after the prayer, the protest ended with the arrest of approximately 40 nuns.

After the arrest, I saw protest participants walking directly into their state representatives’ offices to discuss the need for a path to citizenship with better immigration reform legislation. I also saw families around the rotunda crying and it dawned on me even more that this is their reality. They are in limbo and it’s SCARY. With our members of Congress failing to support positive immigration reform, and with the current injustices of ICE raids, the voices of immigrants are being ignored.

Overall I’m glad to have been a part of this protest. As a Catholic, a person of color, a first-generation American, and an activist, seeing the nuns being arrested coupled with the families crying made me take a step back to look at the conditions of this country. In the words of Daniel Neri, one of the speakers at the rally, “We are not criminals, we are not rapists, we are good people” (NCR). 

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Addressing Hate Incidents at Maryland Colleges

On February 8th I had the privilege of testifying in front of the Maryland House Appropriations Committee in support of bill HB0511. The bill, sponsored by Del. Angela Angel, is designed to track and document hate-bias incidents at Maryland’s public colleges.

As a student at the University of Maryland, I have seen the need for this bill firsthand. Last year our campus saw swastika graffiti, multiple nooses, white nationalist posters, and a confederate flag etching. At least 27 incidents occurred in the last semester, alone. Most painfully, Bowie State student Richard Collins was murdered because of his race.

It is this context, a campus where white supremacy manifests in symbols and in violence, that demands action. Currently hate bias-incident protocol is weak at Maryland public colleges. Del. Angel’s bill would require schools to provide detailed reports of the incidents to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The bill would also require an electronic crime alert notification system to include notification of hate-bias incidents. In addition, it would establish anti-hate bias training for incoming freshmen.

I believe this bill represents common sense steps to track and prevent hate-bias. That is why I went to Annapolis to testify with other college students who saw the need for change. It was powerful to witness the bravery of students who experienced hate firsthand and came to speak. The legislators in attendance were visibly moved by their stories.

I am hopeful that this bill will be the first step in making Maryland colleges safer and more just, especially for students of color. To testify alongside other young people fighting for change was a heartening experience.

I also wrote a column for the University of Maryland newspaper, The Diamondback, in support of the legislation that can be found here. This was my final thought:

 The personal and institutional forces of racism that create a culture of hate crimes also work to dismiss the victims. We must start seeing incomplete data on hate crimes and the crimes themselves as part of a larger injustice. In addition to leaving marginalized students vulnerable, a lack of data allows the issue to be dismissed by those who don’t see, or choose to ignore, the true scope of racism today. Angel’s is the first step in a bigger fight.

Real transparency is, and always has been, necessary for justice. That is why, in response to the murder of [Richard] Collins, students from Bowie State and this university painted a unity mural. The mural, meant to symbolize racial justice, now hangs in the Maryland State House as a vibrant reminder to our legislators. Student artist Aerika Anderson said the mural was based in part on the question, “Where do we go from here?” Angel’s bill offers us a worthwhile answer.

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Contact Us

  • Quixote Center
    7307 Baltimore Ave.
    Ste 214
    College Park, MD 20740
  • Office: 301-699-0042
    Email: info@quixote.org

Direction to office:

For driving: From Baltimore Ave (Route 1) towards University of Maryland, turn right onto Hartwick Rd. Turn immediate right in the office complex.

Look for building 7307. We are located on the 2nd floor.

For public transportation: We are located near the College Park metro station (green line)