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Student Reflection from Hearing on Human Rights Defenders of Migrants in the U.S.

December 18, 2018

On December 5, 2018, I traveled to the headquarters of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to represent the University of Washington Center for Human Rights as we presented our new report “Secret Police: Access to Information about Immigration Enforcement in the United States” to the Commission during its hearing on the “Situation of Human Rights Defenders of Migrants in the United States.” This hearing was made possible through the efforts of Prof. Alejandra Gonza of the University of Washington’s International Human Rights Law Clinic, which has supported the efforts of the NWDC Resistance to contest abuses, and requested this opportunity to share the experiences of human rights defenders with the Commission. A video recording of the full hearing is available here.

The Center’s report explains the challenges that the CHR has confronted in using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request access to U.S. government information about immigration enforcement in Washington state; and conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, as well as other facilities that hold people detained by ICE in our state. We argue that our experience is part of a pattern across the country where ICE is actively providing false or misleading information, does not adequately respond to FOIA requests, uses specific institutional arrangements to keep information secret, all causing severe impacts on human rights defenders, their families, and communities. Read our full report, which was presented to the IACHR, here.

The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights addresses human rights issues in the member states of the Organization of American States (OAS), and holds thematic hearings on specific areas of concern, among other duties. At the hearings, members of civil society present their concerns often with witness testimony from people who suffer human rights violations covered in the topic of the hearings. Usually the state representatives of the country in question are present to hear civil society testimony. However, during our hearing on December 5, 2018, the representatives of the United States government were not present. The commission explained that the U.S. officials were observing the national day of mourning for the former president George H.W. Bush, however the U.S. officials never notified the delegation. The human rights defenders had prepared questions for the U.S. officials but there were no representatives to hear and respond to them.

Empty seats for representatives of the U.S. government at the hearing.

Empty seats for representatives of the U.S. government at the hearing.

During the hearing, six human rights defenders of migrant rights from across the country gave their testimony of how they have been targeted specifically for practicing their first amendment rights of freedom of speech, and assembly as they speak out against ICE’s immigration enforcement tactics, and inhumane conditions in immigration detention centers across the country. Maru Mora Villapando, co-founder of the NWDC Resistance, spoke about how she was targeted and put into deportation proceedings because of her political activities, and how when she has tried to obtain information about her case file and obtain documentary evidence of ICE’s activities against her, she has faced great challenges in accessing this information. She testified:

“All ICE moves are politically motivated.  I had to FOIA ICE after they denied access to my file. The FOIAs were denied and I sued ICE. One of the forms they were hiding was the I-213 “Record of Deportable/Inadmissible Alien”.  U.S. Senator Cantwell got it, not me. ICE said expressly the reason for starting the process was my public relevance, anti-ICE activity and Latino advocacy.”

Villapando continues her work to shut down the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), and support those imprisoned there. Since the hearing, those detained at the NWDC have started a hunger strike to protest inhumane conditions at the center.

Next, ShaCorrie Tunkara testified about how her husband, Saja Tunkara, was targeted for rapid deportation after she participated in an interview with the Seattle Weekly about the lack of access to healthcare in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. She spoke of the effects this has had on her and her husband, and their two young children. She testified: “It was a battle to keep him alive while in detention. I fear his deportation will lead to his death.” She continued in her testimony:

“Saja was deported abruptly to Sierra Leone two and a half weeks after the Seattle Weekly article. Saja had to beg ICE to notify me of his deportation. ICE did not allow me and my children to say goodbye: no kiss, no hug, no conversation. Saja left to Sierra Leone humiliated, embarrassed and with a life-threatening condition that requires constant medical supervision. He currently has no medication and continues to suffer from excruciating pain. Life without Saja has been hard for me and my children who have been diagnosed with PTSD. He tells me he wants to see us before he dies and that I should tell our story because it could be someone else’s husband, father or son.”

ShaCorrie is still fighting for her husband, they currently have an I-130 pending, hoping that she can bring him back using her U.S. citizenship.

Kike Balacazar, a member of Migrant Justice in Vermont, represents the voice of 1500 dairy workers. Balacazar has worked with his community to protect migrant rights in Vermont, including advising the attorney general’s office, working to pass local ordinances, and working with the state legislature.  He testified:

“It is because of this that we have made the administration uncomfortable. Exercising freedom of expression has brought us very serious consequences, the members of our organization have become the target of ICE. Multiple members have been arrested in retaliation for our activism. One of many of our members who was detained by ICE was interrogated about whether he knew me. The officer expressly told him: ‘Kike is next’.”

In March 2018, Balacazar was detained and held by ICE for 11 days, and put into deportation proceedings.

Alejandra Pablos is a reproductive health and immigrant rights advocate from Arizona who was targeted and detained by ICE at a protest. In January 2018, Pablos participated in a peaceful rally in Virginia. Pablos testified:

“I was leading chants, I wasn’t even the leader of that demonstration. Nonetheless, I was singled out and detained by DHS police and was the only one arrested. When I asked the officer why, he told me: ‘You were the loudest and he knew arresting me would end the protest.’ It was clear that I was targeted. I was released, but the incident was flagged to ICE, and I was taken into custody at my next check in. I spent more than 43 days inside those cold walls, even though the charges were dropped.”

Since giving her testimony at this hearing, an immigration judge in Arizona took away Alejandra Pablos’ green card and issued a deportation order.

Janay Cauthen testifies about the impacts of the deportation of Jean Montrevil.

Janay Cauthen testifies about the impacts of the deportation of Jean Montrevil.

Human rights defender Janay Cauthen, from New York, testified about the deportation of her ex-husband and the father of her three children, Jean Montrevil and the effects on their children. Montrevil was deported to Haiti after living in the United States for 30 years. Cauthen testified:

“I believe that the father of my 3 children was targeted by ICE because of his fierce activism. He is one of the co-founders of the New Sanctuary Movement, an organization and he is also a member of Families for Freedom…On January 3 Jean was arrested by ICE while on his way to work. He was being surveilled by ICE for weeks without his knowledge. Fortunately, he still had his cell phone, and he was able to text me and I immediately notified his lawyer. But when the lawyer arrived, ICE denied any knowledge of Jean’s arrest…Our youngest daughter who is 11 is now in mental health therapy and has been diagnosed with a separation disorder.”

Cauthen tells the commission that she will “continue to speak out against injustices” against non-citizens in the U.S.

The last human rights defender to testify was Ravidath Ragbir, the executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, who works alongside Montrevil, Cauthen, and others in New York, “standing with families and communities in detention and deportation.” ICE arrested Ragbir during his annual supervision check-in January 11, 2018, and was transferred to Florida for immediate deportation, only a week after Montrevil was detained and set to be deported. Ragbir says that upon his release, he has suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, impairing his ability to work with the New Sanctuary Coalition, and has caused his wife to be in constant fear. Ragbir testified:

“The goal of the ICE agents in my deportation and other leaders was to create a chilling effect. Seeing someone in my position being deported would discourage people about their own situations. It was a strategic and targeted attack. It was used to quell a community that was struggling with this crisis. The whole administration was working to get rid of me. The deputy director of ICE told my attorney that he knows exactly where I live, he knows the pants I wear and how I walk, it is clear they had been surveilling me for a long time, and that my deportation was not a coincidence.”

Ragbir explains that he thinks the current administration must “feel threatened” by the work that he and his colleagues have been doing to help people being deported from the U.S. and his criticism of the current administration.

Following the testimony of the human rights defenders, I provided a short statement summarizing the UWCHR’s report, explaining that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives people in the United States the right to request government information, to hold the government accountable for its actions.

“The law gives us the right as the public in the United States to request information to hold the U.S. government accountable. However, every time we use this law we face immense challenges. When we request information, they either don’t respond to us at all, which is a violation of the law, [or] when they do respond to us, sometimes they give us incorrect information, which we are able to verify with requests that we send through the Washington state public records.”

Our recommendations for how to address these issues are the following:

  • Immigration court records should be part of the public records the way that criminal court records are public;
  • Funding for the Department of Homeland Security should be directly linked to their compliance with FOIA; and
  • Private corporations under contract with the federal government should have those activities subject to the FOIA.

In response to the testimony of the human rights defenders, president of the Commission Margarette May Macaulay said: “Lots of what I am hearing, really to me, to my mind, fall into the category of crimes against humanity because the numbers are so large and getting larger.”

Other commissioners in attendance were: Luis Ernesto Varga Silva, Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants; Francisco Jose Eguiguren Praeli, Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders; Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, Rapporteur on the Rights of Children, Assistant Executive Secretary Maria Claudia Pulido, and Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão.

Emily Willard represents UWCHR at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Emily Willard represents UWCHR at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

I am very grateful for the opportunity to represent the CHR and present the report to the IACHR, despite the fact that the U.S. government was not there. It was powerful to hear the testimony presented by the human rights defenders and be able to support them and stand in solidarity with them. I also think it was important to write the report and present it, because the challenges that we face using the FOIA to attempt to uncover human rights violations against people in Washington state are something we struggle with every day in our research, and discuss and strategize in weekly staff meetings among ourselves. It is rare that we get an opportunity to publicly share our challenges with a larger audience.

While we have been forced to bring litigation against the Department of Homeland Security, the report is important because it brings all of the challenges we face in different aspects of our work into once place. We see that it is a series of challenges within our own work, but also part of a pattern across the country of other people using the FOIA and state public records laws to uncover human rights violations committed by federal and local immigration enforcement.

It helps us see and feel that we are not alone in this work. I found myself immensely moved and inspired by the human rights defenders’ testimony, and their strength to continue their work despite the human costs. Not only is it our right to access information about how local and federal officers enforce immigration laws in our communities, it is a responsibility—we have to keep asking, keep requesting, and keep fighting no matter how difficult the challenges that lay before us.