HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATES EDITH COLIVER FELLOWSHIP
Each summer, HRA awards fellowships to exceptional students at the University of San Francisco School of Law. These fellowships enable law students to gain work experience related to human rights. The fellowships are open to all USF law students. A human rights background and clinical experience is a plus.
Below some of HRA’s past fellows describe their experiences and perspectives on the various human rights issues they confronted, ranging from access to justice, free and fair elections, women’s rights, and human rights defenders to prolonged immigration detention.
In 2015, Human Rights Advocates awarded a fellowship to University of San Francisco School of Law graduate Nicki Griffin. Nicki received a $2000 stipend to work in fall 2015 with HRA Board member Jeremiah Johnson, a partner at Johnson & McDermed, LLP, an immigration law firm in San Francisco. Nicki reports on some of her work below.
I am honored to be the 2015 Human Rights Advocates Edith Coliver Human Rights Fellow. I began the fellowship without a background in immigration law, but well aware there are many injustices throughout. My supervising attorney, Jeremiah Johnson, a founding partner of Johnson & McDermed and HRA board member, instructed me to “find a problem with immigration practices and then propose a solution.” It seemed simple enough, but was actually a daunting task.
Even with my limited knowledge, I knew that there are a plethora of issues that need to be addressed within immigration law, so where to start was the challenge. As I familiarized myself with the immigration court structure and governing law, I focused in on asylum. Part of qualifying for asylum consists of showing refugee status. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protections of that country.” It struck me as odd that, absent from the recognized list of what a refugee must fear persecution based on, is gender.
My initial goal was to use international law to argue that based on the right to asylum and international law’s commitment to advancing gender equality, gender should be a recognized group for the purposes of seeking asylum. I continued to do research and was pleased to discover that while gender may not be on the list, it is beginning to be recognized under the “particular social group” category. Within the last couple of years the Immigration Courts have begun recognizing victims of domestic and other gender violence as a group needing protection and subsequently granting them asylum.
Though progress has been made, there is still much work to be done, as victims of domestic and gender violence must still define their own particular social group, hoping that theirs will be recognized by the court though not all of them are. It is not enough to simply be a victim of domestic violence. The courts require something more, such as “women from Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” (Matter of A-R-C-G-, 26 I&N Dec. 388 (BIA 2014)).
Jeremiah showed me the importance of direct client advocacy, and gave me the opportunity to assist in forming the particular social group for a client. Furthermore, I was able to assist in establishing the country conditions for the client. The country conditions are not only important for developing a particular social group, but in demonstrating to the court that the refugee cannot simply relocate within their home country.
After this invaluable experience, Jeremiah and I decided that I would continue with that thread by creating a “gendered violence-country conditions” resource guide for attorneys who are seeking asylum for victims of gender violence in Latin America.
In my research, it became apparent that in addition to hurdles these victims face in court, an initial issue for them is access to resources. The needed resources include both legal counsel and general support.
With that in mind I decided to create a resource guide for the women who are victims of domestic and gender violence as well. After reading countless stories of women who were forced to flee their countries and came here with nothing, it was very important to me that this guide be done in a hard copy format as many of these women don’t have access to the internet or other resources.
I still believe, especially given the high incidence of femicide that occurs around the world, that gender should be a recognized category within the definition of a refugee. However, I am hopeful, now that the courts are starting to recognize these victims as refugees in need of asylum.
I have been very excited about my project and am grateful for the chance to actually create a product that can help victims of gender violence to seek the aid that they both need and are entitled to.
In 2014, Human Rights Advocates awarded fellowships to Kendall Kozai and Rahman Popal, both former participants in the Frank C. Newman International Human Rights Law Clinic.
Each fellow received a stipend to work with HRA partners in fall 2014 in San Francisco on human rights projects. Kendall Kozai helped the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) prepare reports for Haiti’s review in October before the UN Human Rights Committee. Rahman Popal analyzed U.S. immigration detention policies at Johnson & McDermed, LLP.
This fall, I had the fortunate pleasure to work as a Human Rights Law Fellow with Human Rights Advocates (HRA) and the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). In this role, I worked closely with HRA Board Member and IJDH Staff Attorney, Nicole Phillips, focusing primarily on civil and political issues currently facing Haitians, including access to justice, free and fair elections, women’s rights, and human rights defenders.
On October 7-10, 2014, the Government of Haiti was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva. During the Fellowship, I had the opportunity to draft and review reports submitted to the Committee on behalf of IJDH regarding obstacles confronting victims seeking access to judicial remedies in the areas of labor and employment, gender-based violence, extrajudicial forced evictions in internally displaced persons camps, cholera, and the prosecution of former dictator Jean Claude Duvalier. Access to justice in Haiti remains a serious issue as the Haitian justice system is susceptible to corruption and abuse by government officials. This weak justice system reinforces social, political, and economic exclusion that prevents women and Haiti’s poor majority from asserting their fundamental rights.
I also worked on the right to vote under the ICCPR, an extremely important issue, as Haitians have not been able to vote since 2011. The current administration had previously committed to holding elections multiple times, most recently by October 26, 2014, only to postpone and ultimately not follow through. While elections are desperately needed to ensure accountability, they will only remedy Haiti’s ongoing political crisis if they are run freely and fairly by a lawfully mandated electoral council. In an effort to curb some of the problems that marred Haiti’s prior elections in 2010 and 2011, including delays, unconstitutional electoral councils, arbitrary exclusion of political parties, voter fraud and intimidation, and poorly managed voter registration, I worked to help develop recommendations urging the Government of Haiti to protect Haitians’ right to vote and run for political office, and on several other ICCPR reports on prison conditions and pretrial detention, child labor and slavery (rèstaveks), freedom of press, and cholera.
Additionally, I worked on several other projects, including conducting research regarding domestic violence against women and LGBT communities in Haiti, an endemic and heavily under-reported problem. I helped track and report recent incidents of violence against human rights defenders, such as arrests, teargas, extrajudicial shootings, and other arbitrary detentions by police, as well as updates on the ongoing investigation into the murder of prominent human rights defender Daniel Dorsinvil and his wife, Girldy Larèche, in February 2014. Finally, I helped draft the 2014 Freedom House Report on Haiti regarding political rights, functioning of government, and civil liberties, including freedom of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, the rule of law, and individual rights.
As a post-graduate Human Rights Advocates Fellow, I was tasked with researching and analyzing U.S. immigration detention policies in light of international human rights law obligations. I entered this Fellowship unfamiliar with immigration law, but aware of the criticisms regarding our immigration system. Now, in my final month, I leave knowing firsthand of the failures of the current U.S. immigration regime—its convoluted laws, draconian policies and denial of basic human dignity to those caught in its web. Early on in my Fellowship, my supervising attorney Mr. Jeremiah Johnson—founding partner of Johnson & McDermed, LLP and HRA Board Member—and I decided that the most practical way to achieve this objective would be to use international human rights law as a legal basis for challenging the detention of immigrants within the immigration court system. Far from radical, but even further away from being ubiquitous, the use of international human rights law as an interpretive guide has been championed by those seeking to ensure U.S. compliance with international law for a long time. Following in the great tradition of current HRA members, alumni and other human rights lawyers spanning the country, I interjected principles of international human rights law (such as freedom from arbitrary detention) while directly representing non-citizen detainees who, in some cases, had been in government custody for over a year.
With Jeremiah Johnson’s guidance, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to challenge the Government’s practice of prolonged detention. I filed motions with the immigration court arguing that international human rights law prohibited the continued detention of migrants without the ability to seek review before a truly neutral arbitrator. My motions were granted and then I was able to represent three immigrant detainees in their bond redetermination hearings in court, two of which resulted in the release of the detainee.
For the two cases that were successful, the immigration judge found that the Government had not met its burden to show that continued detention was justified. However, at the close of the second hearing the judge ruled against our request for release. I left dejected. More than the loss, though, the process afforded to my client was what saddened me. I felt that the immigration judge made a spectacle of the notion of a “neutral arbitrator.”
While it is a known fact within the immigration field, some outside of it may not know that the immigration court is housed under the Department of Justice (DOJ) within the executive branch and not a separate branch of the government. With the detainee on the stand, the immigration judge presiding over the hearing attacked my client and his character for truthfulness. But, she didn’t just end her assault there. She attacked my client’s family, accusing them of harboring an illegal immigrant and said that she wished they were in court because she suspected them of violating the law. A man that had been belittled, shackled, forced to abandon his children and wife and subject to months of detention was expected to answer not only for his own mistakes, but somehow make excuses for actions that any loving wife and mother would take. This man escaped persecution to seek protection in the United States and yet a judge that is supposed to symbolize impartiality wanted to make a case out of him. I was never able to ask him, but I suspect he felt shame, embarrassment, discomfort and a sense that he was being misjudged during that hearing.
President Obama recently announced an Executive Order that will have the effect of granting temporary relief to many immigrants. While many immigration reform-advocates champion this effort, human rights advocates must not forget the thousands of detained migrants denied an opportunity to an individualized hearing before a neutral arbitrator to argue for their release. And while this new executive order may provide temporary relief to some, what is truly needed is human rights for all.