DHS MUST STOP Anti-Asylum Seeker Policy

African Human Rights Coalition is a proud signatory to this letter, in coalition with CGRS, tASISTA, the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, Tahirih Justice Center, and over 180 other organizations, which was sent today to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, calling on DHS to immediately rescind its policy of expelling asylum seekers at the border. The letter notes that this policy places survivors of domestic and sexual violence at particularly high risk of harm.

To date, this policy has resulted in the expulsions of upwards of 7,000 asylum seekers, with no legal process whatsoever. The groups’ letter points out that this practice places survivors of domestic and sexual violence at particularly high risk of harm.

“The current COVID-19 crisis only compounds the barriers that survivors of gender-based violence face seeking asylum in the United States,” the groups write, noting that shelter at home orders have led to a worldwide surge in domestic violence in recent weeks. “Within the last few years, the U.S. Department of Justice has all but closed the door on women seeking asylum from their abusive partners … The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have now cited the pandemic as justification to close our borders to asylum seekers entirely.”

“If we do not implement reasonable precautions at our border to ensure both public health and the protection of refugees, and instead continue to shut the door to the most vulnerable, we will fail those who turn to us for protection, as well as U.S. domestic and international law obligations, and our own best traditions,” the groups continue. “We urge [DHS] to rescind this flawed policy and replace it with targeted, reasonable, and proportionate measures to protect public health and ensure that women and children fleeing domestic violence and other refugees are not returned to persecution.”

THE LETTER

The Honorable Chad F. Wolf
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20528
email: chad.wolf@hq.dhs.gov

April 16, 2020

cc: Alex M. Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services
Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State

Re: Restoring asylum protections for domestic violence survivors and all others seeking asylum during the global pandemic

Dear Acting Secretary Wolf:

The 182 undersigned national, state, and local organizations that advocate on behalf of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, asylum seekers, immigrants and stateless people call on you to rescind the blanket policy of turning back refugees from our borders. We understand the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic has required the Administration to take action to reduce the virus’ transmission rate. However, closing our borders to asylum seekers flies in the face of public health principles, as well as our non-derogable treaty obligations. We are deeply concerned that this new policy will put survivors of domestic and sexual violence at particularly high risk of harm.

Domestic violence survivors and their advocates around the world have sounded the alarm in recent weeks about the rising danger for abused women and children sheltering at home when home is not safe.1 The United Nations Secretary-General called attention on April 5, 2020 to a “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” as fear of the virus has grown, along with its social and economic consequences.2 The U.S. National Domestic Violence Hotline has explained that when an abusive partner feels a loss of power and control, such as during a time of crisis, abuse often escalates in intensity and frequency. It is clear that pandemic-induced isolation measures, and health and economic stressors, can make survivors still more vulnerable. A number of countries have reported a spike in domestic violence related to COVID-19 restrictions on movement.3

Women and children in many countries cannot rely on local authorities to help them even during normal times, much less in this period of extreme social isolation. In a revealing glimpse of one government’s unhelpful response to the threat of rising domestic violence, Malaysian officials warned women not to be “sarcastic” to their husbands or “nag” them during that country’s lockdown, and apologized only after an international outcry.4

The current COVID-19 crisis only compounds the barriers that survivors of gender-based violence face seeking asylum in the United States. Within the last few years, the U.S. Department of Justice has all but closed the door on women seeking asylum from their abusive partners.5 A host of unlawful policies has made the process more difficult and dangerous than ever: separating families, increasing incarceration, slowing down processing of new asylum claims at the border through the practice known as “metering,” and forcing people to wait in Mexico for their U.S. immigration court hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols. More recently, the U.S. has further shirked its legal obligations to refugees by simply deporting people to Guatemala under an Asylum Cooperative Agreement, touting a legal fiction that they can safely seek asylum there.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have now cited the pandemic as justification to close our borders to asylum seekers entirely.6 DHS’ position is that asylum seekers are not considered to be engaged in essential travel.7 However, asylum seekers not only have compelling reasons to request entry but also have a right to seek protection that is guaranteed under U.S. law pursuant to U.S. treaty obligations under the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1984 Convention Against Torture.

During this pandemic, it is highly unlikely that large numbers of women and children suffering from domestic violence will be able to make their way to the southern border, given that many countries are requiring residents to shelter at home, and international travel has become extremely difficult. However, we are concerned that those seeking asylum in the United States are now being promptly expelled with no legal process whatsoever.8

In direct violation of U.S. law, border officials are not even inquiring why people without proper documentation are seeking to enter, nor are they asking whether they fear harm if they are refused entry. Instead, DHS officials have been instructed to expel everyone immediately except those who spontaneously express a fear of torture. If an asylum seeker does spontaneously express a fear of torture, the frontline border patrol officer must determine if the fear is “reasonably believable,” a legal standard that does not exist in U.S. immigration law and on which border patrol officers have not been trained. If the officer determines that the asylum seeker’s fear is reasonably believable, they must then get the approval of a superior officer, the chief patrol agent for the sector. Only after these steps is the asylum seeker allowed to express her fear of torture to an asylum officer. All others are summarily turned back. Reports as of early April indicate that some 7,000 people have been expelled in this manner since the new policy went into effect on March 20, 2020. There are no reports of anyone successfully convincing a border agent that she has a “reasonably believable” fear of torture. Many women arriving at the U.S. southern border are fleeing extensively documented extreme violence in their home countries. That not one of these women has been found to have a “reasonably believable fear” since expulsions began last month is a damning indication that this new procedure actually offers no exceptions.

The procedure described above is wholly inadequate to ensure that the United States abides by its obligations under the Convention Against Torture, implemented in U.S. law in the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998. The procedure also fails entirely to meet U.S. obligations under the Refugee Protocol, implemented in U.S. law in the Refugee Act of 1980, as there is no provision for assessing an asylum seeker’s fear of persecution even if she spontaneously asserts such a fear. Protections under the Convention Against Torture and under the Refugee Protocol have different legal definitions and different standards of proof. Even if DHS was adequately assessing the claims of people who fear torture, this would be insufficient to protect those who fear persecution. We note that Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic Members wrote to you on April 7, 2020 posing a number of inquiries concerning the legal justification for closing U.S. borders to asylum seekers and questioning the compliance of such actions with U.S. treaty obligations.9 Their concerns were echoed on April 10, 2020 by the Chairs of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the House Committee on Homeland Security, and the House Committee on the Judiciary.10 We urge you to respond fully and completely to these inquiries.

An additional concern is that children traveling alone should benefit from the provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and are supposed to be exempt from the new policy barring asylum seekers. However, there are reliable reports that they, too, are being expelled, prompting congressional leaders to ask your Department to stop the practice immediately.11 We ask that you respond swiftly to their requests.

As noted above, we fully support the adoption of all necessary measures to reduce the transmission rate of COVID-19. However, border restrictions can be managed in a manner which protects public health while respecting international human rights and refugee protection standards, including the principle of non-refoulement. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have stressed that governments can put in place targeted, reasonable, and proportionate measures, such as screening or temporary limitations on movement, to protect both their own populations and those seeking asylum.12

In light of the guidance provided by WHO and UNHCR, we are particularly concerned that DHS in its new travel restrictions13 and the CDC in its Order14 and Interim Final Rule15 fail even to mention asylum seekers. This is an astonishing omission since, as noted above, the Administration has had an intense focus on the issue of asylum seekers at our southern border for the last several years. The failure to mention asylum seekers, much less take their legal rights into account, is also puzzling since the CDC’s Interim Final Rule affirms that “In issuing orders pursuant to this interim final rule, CDC would coordinate with the Secretary of State in order to ensure compliance with the international legal obligations of the United States and to take due account of U.S. national and security interests.”16 There is no indication of any such coordination with the Secretary of State, nor does the action taken by DHS and the CDC even attempt to comply with the United States’ international legal obligations.

The CDC Order lacks any legal analysis whatsoever that would reconcile public health imperatives with the United States’ legal obligation to asylum seekers, resting instead on information about the situation at the border supplied by DHS. Unfortunately, this information is woefully insufficient or incorrect in a number of respects.17 Particularly concerning is the CDC’s assumption based on information provided by DHS that most asylum seekers would have nowhere to go except an immigration detention center if they were allowed to enter the United States. In fact, over 90% of asylum seekers presenting at the Southern border have family or close friends in this country.18

We know that the isolation necessary to slow the spread of this pandemic will result in countless more women and children suffering domestic violence. We also know that if we do not implement reasonable precautions at our border to ensure both public health and the protection of refugees, and instead continue to shut the door to the most vulnerable, we will fail those who turn to us for protection, as well as U.S. domestic and international law obligations, and our own best traditions. We urge you to rescind this flawed policy and replace it with targeted, reasonable, and proportionate measures to protect public health and ensure that women and children fleeing domestic violence and other refugees are not returned to persecution.

Respectfully,
SPANISH

Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence ASISTA
Center for Gender & Refugee Studies
Tahirih Justice Center

ADL (Anti-Defamation League)
Advocating Opportunity
African Human Rights Coalition (African HRC)
African Public Affairs Committee
African Services Committee
Al Otro Lado
Alianza Americas
America’s Voice
Americans for Immigrant Justice
Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC)
Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence
Association of Deportation Defense Attorneys
Asylum Access
Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project
Asylum Sponsorship Project (ASP)
Bay Area Asylum Support Coalition
Bay Area Resource Generation
California Partnership to End Domestic Violence
Canal Alliance
Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition
Catholic Charities of Orange County
Catholic Charities of San Francisco
Catholic Legal Services, Archdiocese of Miami
Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Center for Victims of Torture
Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) Los Angeles
Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) San Francisco
Centro Legal de la Raza
Christian Community Development Association
Church World Service
Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic
Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto
Congregation of Our Lady of the Good Shepherd, U.S. Provinces Connecticut Shoreline Indivisible
CRCNA Safe Church Ministry
DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence
DC Volunteer Lawyers Project
Denver Justice and Peace Committee
Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Program at Newton-Wellesley Hospital East Bay Sanctuary Covenant
Equal Access Legal Services
Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America5
Family Violence Appellate Project (CA) Freedom Network USA
Futures Without Violence
Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation Haitian Bridge Alliance
Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network Her Justice
HIAS
Hispanic Federation
Hope Border Institute
Human Rights First
Human Rights Initiative of North Texas
Human Rights Watch
Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown (Iowa)
Immigrant Defenders Law Center
Immigrant Defense Advocates
Immigrant Family Legal Services
Immigration Center for Women and Children
Immigration Institute of the Bay Area
Indivisible San Francisco
International Action Network for Gender Equity & Law
International Refugee Assistance Project
International Rescue Committee
Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Jenesse Center, Inc.
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Jewish Women International
Just Neighbors
Justice and Immigration Clinic, University of La Verne College of Law Justice for Our Neighbors Houston
Justice in Motion
Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence
Kehilla Community Synagogue
Kentucky Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
Khmer Anti-deportation Advocacy Group (KhAAG)
Kids in Need of Defense
La Raza Centro Legal – San Francisco
Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center
Last Mile4D
Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services
Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund Legal Services for Children
Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice Lutheran Social Services of New York MADRE
Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence Make the Road New Jersey
Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project
Migration Alliance at Yale (MAY), formerly Yale Refugee Project Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance
Mujeres Unidas y Activas
National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA)
National Immigrant Justice Center
National Immigration Law Center
National Justice for Our Neighbors
National Lawyers Guild Bay Area Chapter
National Network for Immigrant & Refugee Rights
National Network to End Domestic Violence
National Organization for Women
National Resource Center on Domestic Violence
Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence
Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA)
New Hampshire-Vermont Guatemala Accompaniment Project
New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence
New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Nicaragua Center for Community Action
Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors
Office of Social Justice, Christian Reformed Church in North America Ohio Domestic Violence Network
Ohio Immigrant Alliance
Open Immigration Legal Services
Oxfam America
Peace Over Violence
Physicians for Human Rights
Project Blueprint
Promundo-US
Public Counsel
Queer Detainee Empowerment Project
Quinnipiac University School of Law Clinic
Quixote Center
Rian Immigrant Center
Safe Horizon
San Antonio Region Justice for Our Neighbors
Sanctuary for Families
Santa Clara University International Human Rights Clinic
Santa Fe Dreamers Project
Save the Children Action Network
Seattle University School of Law Gender Violence Immigration Clinic Services, Immigrant Rights & Education Network (SIREN)]
Sojourners
Solidarity
South Texas Human Rights Center
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC)
Southern Border Communities Coalition
Southern Poverty Law Center
Southwestern Law School Removal Defense Clinic & Pro Bono Removal Defense Stand Together Contra Costa
Street Level Health Project
Sueños Sin Fronteras de Tejas (SSFTX)
Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors
The Advocates for Human Rights
The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI)
The Door
The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project
The Human Trafficking Legal Center
The Legal Aid Society (New York)
The Legal Project
The NW Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian, and Gay Survivors of Abuse
The Second Step
The Welcome Project
UCSF Human Rights Cooperative
Ujima Inc: The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community Union for Reform Judaism
Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
United Stateless
United We Dream
University of Tulsa College of Law Legal Clinic
Urban Justice Center Domestic Violence Project
V-Day
Vida Legal Assistance Inc.
Voice of Witness
Washington Defender Association
Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence
We Are All America
Witness at the Border
Women Graduates USA
Women’s Refugee Commission
Young Democrats of America Hispanic Caucus

FOOTNOTES AND LINKS TO LETTER HERE:

ENGLISH

SPANISH

We are tweeting the following hashtags etc., join in the chorus:

BREAKING: @CGRSHastings and 180+ orgs urge @DHS_Wolf to rescind illegal policy of expelling asylum seekers at the border, a practice that places #DV survivors at grave risk. #COVID19 #ImmigrantWomenToo https://bit.ly/2XHmnjq

We join @CGRSHastings and 180+ orgs calling for an end to the Trump Administration’s cruel and illegal border expulsions. @DHSGov must not use #COVID19 as a pretext to turn its back on refugees and endanger women and children fleeing persecution. https://bit.ly/2XHmnjq

In a letter to @DHS_Wolf, @CGRSHastings and 180+ orgs call on @DHSGov to halt illegal expulsions of asylum seekers at the border and implement reasonable measures that protect public health and ensure refugee women and children are not returned to danger. https://bit.ly/2XHmnjq

Join us in calling on @DHSGov to keep our doors open to domestic violence survivors seeking refuge! Add your name to the petition here: https://bit.ly/2KcbjCQ #ImmigrantWomenToo

@CGRSHastings y 180+ orgs urgen a @DHS_Wolf que rescinda la política cruel e ilegal de expulsar a los solicitantes de asilo en la frontera, una práctica que pone a las sobrevivientes de #ViolenciaDoméstica en riesgo. #COVID19 #ImmigrantWomenToo https://bit.ly/2XHmnjq

Nos unimos a @CGRSHastings y 180+ orgs para exigir el fin de política de expulsiones en la frontera. El #COVID19 no debe ser pretexto para que @DHSgov le dé la espalda a los refugiados y ponga en peligro a mujeres y niñes que huyen de la persecución. https://bit.ly/2XHmnjq

En una carta enviada a @DHS_Wolf, @CGRSHastings y 180+ orgs piden al @DHSGov que detenga las expulsiones de solicitantes de asilo en la frontera y en vez implemente medidas que protejan tanto la salud pública como los derechos de las mujeres refugiadas. https://bit.ly/2XHmnjq

Únase a nosotros para pedirle al @DHSGov que mantenga nuestras puertas abiertas para las sobrevivientes de violencia doméstica que buscan refugio! Agregue su nombre a la petición aquí:https://bit.ly/2KcbjCQ #ImmigrantWomenToo


MELANIE NATHAN

My E-mail – commissionermnathan@gmail.com
Follow me on Twitter – @MelanieNathan1  and @AfricanHRC
Check out my Instagram: Commissionermelnathan
My websites:
Speaker: www.melnathan.com
Mediation: www.privatecourts.com
Refugee / Asylum Advocacy:www.africanHRC.org


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