Defending the rights of immigrants and refugees in the US

by Trang Chu Minh | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 23 August 2017 14:34 GMT

REUTERS / Stephanie Keith

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Pro bono lawyers and refugee rights advocates rallied together in record time to address the unprecedented travel and refugee ban issued by the new US administration, providing immediate legal support to those affected. 

The world is facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II, with 65.6 million people displaced from some of the world’s most dangerous regions; those plagued by war, hostility and political upheaval.

Many of these people hope eventually to return home when it’s safe for them to do so. However, a number of these families and individuals cannot remain in their current situation, because they receive daily threats due to their gender identity or sexual orientation, are persecuted due to their religious or political affiliation, have children with medical emergencies, or face deportation. For these refugees, resettlement to a safe third country is the only option.

Explaining the travel ban

The US has long prided itself on championing human rights and the rights of those fleeing persecution;  between 1980-2016 the country received approximately 70,000 refugees annually.

Yet on 6 March 2017, US President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order that suspended the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, and banned people from six majority-Muslim countries - Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen - from entering the country for 90 days.

The revised order came on the back of the original travel ban signed on 27 January which barred citizens from seven countries from crossing the US border, and which was blocked by federal judges amidst national protests.

The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a leading non-profit providing legal representation to refugees, immediately mobilised thousands of pro bono lawyers at airports to assist incoming immigrants and refugees. Besides offering direct legal advice on the ground, IRAP identified an urgent need to create a ‘one-stop shop’ online to inform affected individuals on their rights, and available legal options.

The ‘Know-Your-Rights Guide’

Within a week of the original order being issued, TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s pro bono legal programme, teamed up with IRAP, Journey’s End Refugee Services and key international law firm partners to put together a ‘Know-Your-Rights Guide’ for those immediately affected. The question-and-answer guide explains the rights of those impacted, as well as available legal recourse, and directs them to relevant hotlines and resources for further support.

Federal courts in Maryland and Hawaii have since blocked the order– a decision that was upheld by the Fourth and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In June 2017, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the order could be implemented on a limited basis, the only exemptions being those who can give evidence of a ‘bona fide relationship’ to a person or entity in the US.

Because the Court did not provide detailed clarification of what exactly constitutes a ‘bona fide relationship’, the current implementation of the ban has been subject to ambiguous interpretations and ongoing litigation.  

Are extended relatives covered under the ban? How far removed? What protection do dual nationals from the restricted countries receive? What about previously admitted refugees who are currently outside the US?

In the face of such a fluid and challenging legal environment, the KYR guide – which is continually updated to reflect the most recent court decisions - has become a vital resource for anyone working on refugee or immigration issues in the US. The guide ensures that those affected are able to use existing legal pathways and take full advantage of their legal rights in any given situation.

The impact of the travel ban

Despite available legal remedies, the travel and refugee ban has impacted thousands of travellers, visa holders and refugees. Even when the original order was blocked by the courts, foreign visitors and immigrants faced enormous uncertainty when trying to enter the US. Some were detained and threatened with deportation.

The order has also devastated the country’s refugee resettlement programme. By reducing the number of refugees allowed into the country by over 50% and causing undue delays, the ban has left thousands of vulnerable refugees in limbo and trapped many in life-threatening conditions.

IRAP is representing an LGBT client from Iraq, who had experienced abuse at the hands of her own family because of her sexual orientation. She was referred to the United States by UNHCR and was scheduled to be interviewed by the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) earlier this year. However, after the Executive Order was signed, her interview was cancelled and has not been rescheduled since. She has since been living in constant fear of retaliation by her family and harassment by her peers.

IRAP has filed a lawsuit against the Executive Order, which helped to water down the content of the ban and temporarily stop it from entering into force. The KYR guide has become an invaluable channel to communicate the most recent changes to the law, allowing more refugees to travel to safety and others to be reunited with their families. 

“We represent over 500 displaced families from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere, who are desperate to find safety in the United States. Despite the time-sensitive and unpredictable nature of the project, the pro bono lawyers produced high-quality materials to ensure that these vulnerable individuals and their legal representatives are aware of the legal framework and can confidently navigate complex legal processes”, says Becca Heller, IRAP’s Director. “Their work has impacted the lives of thousands of people who are affected by the travel ban, including refugees who are persecuted due to their work with the US military, their LGBTI status, or their history as a victim of sexual violence.”

The Supreme Court is due to hold a hearing in October to examine the legality of the order and make a final decision on its enforcement.

This project has been nominated for the 2017 TrustLaw Collaboration Award, and is part of TrustLaw’s wider efforts to help coordinate the pro bono legal response to the needs of refugees and forcibly displaced people around the world.



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