Bill Holston, Immigration Attorney and Human Rights INITIATIVE Executive Director, Has Won first Place from Texas Associated Press as well as The National award: ‘first Place for Commentary from the Public Radio News Directors (PRNDI).
Join us on the last friday of EVERY month for inspiration from our very own Bill Holston
In a song that has become something of an anthem for me and my fellow Baby Boomers, former Beatle John Lennon sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you will join me and the world will live as one.” A lofty and inspiring idea. It’s especially poignant today because the fate of millions of children lies in the balance.
As I type this, Congress is debating the fate of the group we’ve called Dreamers—child immigrants who benefitted from DACA. These are immigrants who were brought here as children. They trusted our government and gave them all of their personal information in order to obtain protection from immediate removal, and a work permit. They serve as members of the Armed Forces, they’re teachers and doctors. They are American in everything except legal status.
The rights of Dreamers have been debated endlessly starting with the first Dream Act, a bi-partisan bill in 2001. The president, in his State of the Union speech, announced his openness to relief for Dreamers provided it was combined with border security. He also said that he wanted to end what he called ‘loopholes’ for unaccompanied minors. People have criticized any immigration deal that trades the rights of children fleeing violence for the rights of Dreamers. There is hope that a spirit of bi-partisanship, and the appeal of the Dreamers, will give rise to a path to citizenship for them without having to give away others’ legitimate rights.
As I stated in an editorial response to the SOTU:
President Donald Trump referred to eliminating “loopholes” [in his State of the Union address]. For many years people have used the term loophole to refer to rights and privileges that flow from our country’s laws and constitution. This is another sad example of picking on the most vulnerable people. To do this as a bargaining chip for the rights of Dreamers is beyond cynical.
For over 12 years, HRI has been protecting the rights of immigrant children. In my office is a much loved snapshot of a 14 year old Honduran boy. He walked into our office talking about the efforts of gangs to recruit him to sell drugs, and stealing his shoes. In the photo he is proudly holding his Green Card. This kid is not a ‘loophole’ to us. He’s a precious young man, now pursuing his American dream, which like my own sons, includes education and safety.
Children are a particularly vulnerable and sympathetic group of immigrants. Because of that fact, we have created legal protections for children. These include certain rights to apply for asylum in asylum offices as well as rights to visas if a child can prove they were abused or neglected by one of their parents. I think most of us agree that children fleeing violence should be protected. This is not the first time we’ve had the chance to save lives.
On February 9, 1939, Democratic senator Robert Wagner of New York and Republican congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts sponsored identical bills in the US Senate and House of Representatives to admit 20,000 German refugee children under the age of fourteen over a two-year period. The bills, written by Pickett and his interfaith colleagues, specified that 10,000 children each fiscal year (1939 and 1940) would enter the United States and not be counted against the existing immigration quota laws. The bill was opposed by Senators like Robert Reynolds of NC, who claimed that it would increase unemployment.
In language and arguments spookily familiar to today’s anti- immigrant diatribes, he called for the building of a wall and claimed that our immigration policies attracted terrorists and criminals. The bill never became law. We know what happened to the kids that didn’t get refuge abroad. Some Senators said that the child refugee issue was ‘too hot to handle.’ That memory presents a series of questions for us as a nation and as individual citizens:
What do we think about that now? Don’t we think of it as cowardice?
Do you think we should have legal protections for immigrant children?
Do you think our current laws protecting children are worth fighting for?
We do, and we appreciate those of you who are joining us in this fight.
– Bill Holston
Lives Hanging in the Balance
More than one-third of Ethiopians make up the Oromo ethnic group. That’s more than 25 million people. The Oromo have their own language and culture distinct from the Amharic language, which is employed as Ethiopia’s official dialect. The Oromo have suffered ongoing persecution by the government, as well as longstanding and widespread discrimination by the Tigray-dominated government. Even in the context of ongoing human rights abuses, the treatment of Oromo people stands out. Protests in Oromia began in November 2015 against the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which would have expanded the capital at the expense of land owned by Oromo farmers.
Ethiopia has been a human rights abuser for many years. The government routinely uses torture and arbitrary arrest in order to suppress political dissent. I have personally represented clients who were subjected to abuse and torture because of their pro-democracy activism.
As a response to protests by Oromos, “On October 9, 2016, the government announced a six-month state of emergency… Over the past year, security forces have killed hundreds of protesters and detained tens of thousands in two regions, including Oromia.”
According to Human RightsWatch, the actions against Oromo have been brutal:
“State security forces in Ethiopia have used excessive and lethal force against peaceful protests that have swept through Oromia, the country’s largest region since November 2015. Over 400 people are estimated to have been killed, thousands injured, tens of thousands arrested, and hundreds, likely more, have been victims of enforced disappearances.”
At HRI we are currently representing a number of Oromo activists who fled persecution and sought refuge in our country.
One of my favorite memories last year was sharing a great Ethiopian meal over lunch with one of our brave Oromo clients.
As a result of years of human rights abuses culminating in the State of Emergency and oppression of Oromo people, members of the United States Congress drafted a resolution:
H. RES. 128 Supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia. By Rep. SMITH of New Jersey (for himself, Ms. BASS, Mr. COFFMAN, Ms. KELLY of Illinois, Mr. VEASEY, and Mr. ELLISON) The resolution was recommended by the House Judiciary Committee.
In part it called for the following changes by the Ethiopian government:
(B) End the use of excessive force by Ethiopian security forces and hold accountable those 12 responsible for killing, torturing, or otherwise 13 abusing the human rights of civilians exercising 14 their constitutional rights through fair and public trials;
(C) Release activists, journalists, and opposition figures who have been wrongfully imprisoned for exercising their constitutional rights, including those arrested for reporting about 20 public protests;
This resolution has bi-partisan support including from the Texas delegation.
The resolution passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously in late July 2017 and was scheduled for a vote by the full House on October 2. It has stalled as a result of intense opposition by the Ethiopian government, which is an important strategic partner of the United States.
As a result of international pressure, the Ethiopian government recently announced that it would close an infamous prison and release prisoners, which many hope means that political prisoners will be freed. If followed through, this could signal a change in government repression. But as is often the case, countries can promise to make changes without doing anything differently.
The United States should continue to condemn the human rights abuses by the government of Ethiopia and put pressure on the government to follow through on its promises. We call on Congress to act accordingly and take up HR 128.
Lives hang in the balance.
– Bill Holston
A Messenger For Peace
It was bitterly cold. And the men were wading in mud. They’d been involved in some of the most savage fighting in modern history, particularly around what became known as the Ypres Salient. Men were dying in terrible conditions. By Christmas the British and German armies were locked in a stalemate that would last until the armistice of November 1918, approximately one hundred years ago this year.
But even in the middle of this tragic war there was reason to hope. On Christmas Eve reports began to surface of German troops displaying candle lit Christmas trees on the tops of their trenches. The words to the German Carol Stille Nacht (Better known to the English troops as Silent Night) drifted across the bombed out area known as No Man’s Land. The English troops reciprocated and sang their favorite carols. Soon, and tentatively, the men began to leave their trenches. Thus began what became known as the Christmas Truce of WWI. This was not an official truce, it happened spontaneously and in a localized way with specific units agreeing to forego killing for a few days as both sides celebrated Christmas. They even exchanged gifts from home and there were reports that some of the combatants played soccer with each other. The story is one of the most inspiring Christmas stories out there.
At Christmas, those of us who are from the Christian faith tradition, celebrate the birth of Jesus. In one of the Gospel accounts (memorialized in Charlie Brown’s Christmas!), angels greet shepherds:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
This message resonates with most of us, whether or not we are Christian. We long for peace despite much evidence of how elusive peace is.
One of the most poignant Christmas Carols is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It was written by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote the poem in the middle of the American Civil War in the aftermath of the serious wounding of his son in battle. He wrote:
And in despair I bowed my head; ‘there is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘for hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
In January, we begin our 18th year at Human Rights Initiative. We continue to represent people fleeing the political oppression in Ethiopia, the domestic violence of Honduras, the religious persecution of Pakistan and the gang violence of El Salvador. These conflicts seem to have no end. Certainly, it seems to be clear that there is no peace on earth.
How do we respond to this? And, at HRI, how do we keep going?
Well, in part we are inspired by our clients. They face tremendous odds and nevertheless they persist. Personally, my staff inspires me. They are such compassionate and intelligent women—some of them are still balancing work with going to school. Yet they work hard every day fighting for the rights of immigrants. And they do it with enthusiasm, heart, and even humor.
All of you, our volunteers and funders, inspire me. I recently received a small check from a friend who is a Catholic nun. Her card had a picture of Fr. Oscar Romero, a martyr from El Salvador. The card has the message, “Love Must Win Out.” My friend gave out of her intentional poverty, living with the least of these. It’s humbling to receive a gift like that….and inspiring.
Maybe you are one of our volunteer lawyers, balancing billable hours with the pro bono work that you love. Maybe you’re like my friend Vanessa Peters, who comes and volunteers with us during the week. Vanessa is also a talented singer who in a Christmas album sang my favorite Christmas carol. She sings one of the less known verses of the Carol, celebrating the essential message of Christmas for me.
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Give it a listen here.
Not all of our staff is Christian, and not all of our supporters are. But in this season of personal significance for me, I hope you will indulge a personal reflection.
I hope you pause this season and reflect of the message of peace that is at the core of the Christmas meaning. And to ask yourself how can you in this coming year be a messenger for peace.
We are thankful for you and from all of us at HRI,
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
– Bill Holston
The Future of Zimbabwe
My office is filled with small gifts from my clients. There’s a papyrus from an Egyptian Coptic Christian, a wall hanging from Togo, and Russian stacking eggs from a Russian Jew. But my most treasured gift is a thank you note from a client from Zimbabwe [pictured above].
She used a quote from the Gospel of Matthew to tell me how much she appreciated my legal assistance and what an impact it had made in her life. She wrote that letter in 2005. At that point, Mugabe had been in power for 25 years and was the only leader that Zimbabwe had known since its formation. He would serve for another 12 long years and had moved from liberation leader to autocratic ruler many years ago.
Zimbabwe was established in 1980 after a lengthy liberation struggle from the white supremacist government of Ian Smith– when the country was still called Rhodesia. Rhodesia had a reputation for the suppression of Black Africans and a particularly brutal form of White Minority rule. Mugabe was one of the leaders of the ZANU party and transitioned to become the first elected leader.
A terribly mishandled move towards much needed land reform resulted in the wrecking of the Zimbabwean economy, as large commercial farms were seized from White Farmers and given to unqualified friends of the President. Zimbabwe moved from being known as the breadbasket of Africa, to a country with hyper-inflation. The country is currently inflated by 348%, but has been as high as 89.7 sextillion (10^23) percent.
I have represented quite a few Zimbabwean asylum applicants. My client who sent the letter was a successful business owner. She owned a beautiful home and sent her daughters to private school. Because of her political activity, she lost it all, and she arrived here with just a suitcase.
Another client was a worker for an international aid organization. They were delivering food which was seized and diverted to communities who supported the president. When he protested, he and his coworkers were abducted and tortured. We have a number of current clients from Zimbabwe, waiting for their court dates or interviews at the Houston Asylum office.
These are the types of experiences that cause people to leave their homes and families behind and seek asylum in the United States. These are the types of people we assist at Human Rights Initiative.
This week Mugabe finally resigned from power after 37 years of misrule. He resigned as a result of action by the military removing him from office. It is believed the military action was a preemptive move to interfere with the plans of Mugabe’s grotesquely unqualified wife, Grace Zimbabwe, to succeed her 93 year husband in office. Emmerson Mnangagwa is Zimbabwe’s new president. Ominously, his nickname is the Crocodile. And he has a fearsome reputation, gained during decades of rule by the Zanu PF party. In 2008 Mugabe was defeated in elections by the MDC candidate Morgan Tsangarai, however Mugabe refused to leave office. Terrible bloodshed resulted. Mnangagwa was thought be an architect of the oppression. “The military and state security organizations unleashed a campaign of violence against opposition supporters, leaving hundreds dead and forcing thousands from their homes.”
Sadly, we don’t have many examples of countries that recover from despotism. There was much harm at the fall of Aparheid in South Africa. The inspiring leadership of Nelson Mandela has deteriorated to the misrule of Jacob Zumba. The end of the Genocide in Rwanda has resulted in the one party oppression of Paul Kagame. Sadly, the end of the military junta rule in Burma/Myanmar has been marred by the present ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims.
There is much cause for concern with the new leadership. Mnangagwa’s ties to Zanu PF, Mugabe, and his actions in previous elections leaves much room for skepticism. It’s much easier to lose democracy than to regain it. But one can always hope.
No Music More Fitting: Rock Your HeArt Out 2017
Music is on my mind right now.
It’s been a tough year for those of us on the front line of immigration work. This work was hard before, and it’s getting harder. I’m ready to hear some good music and have a great time. Good thing, because HRI’s 2nd annual ROCK YOUR HEART OUT concert is almost here!
Music has always been a big part of my life. I grew up in an era when you heard new music on the radio. I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and sometimes I’d hear Bob Dylan on clear channel radio stations. Those were A.M. Stations with great broadcasting power. I could listen to that music on my small transistor radio, plugged into my ear, blasting rock and roll (this is why I ask you to repeat yourself now).
My favorite music style is roots music of any type. I love the way music says something about the various cultures of our country. In my ITunes library you’ll find the Delta Blues of Mississippi, John Hurt, and the so-called Desert blues of Malian superstars Tinarawin. You’ll also find the country blues of Jimmie Rodgers, the jazz of John Coltrane, the Soul of The Staples Singers, and hip hop artist Common. Let’s just say my tastes are eclectic.
I am looking forward to the three bands playing our event this year. I was introduced to XUAN (pronounced Swan) at last year’s Rock Your HeArt Out event, and she opens the evening again this year with her beautiful voice and thoughtful lyrics. She was a big hit in 2016, and is sure to be again this year.
Bombasta, another of our bands performing, is a San Antionio group playing a mix of cumbia, salsa, hip-hop, and bachata. Lead singer Robert Livar talks about what they are trying to accomplish:
“We’re very much dedicated to knocking down those perceived walls of division, because when it comes down to it, we’re all in the same boat. This music is about a celebration of life, and a celebration of community.”
Count me in.
Music is the great connector of human beings. It’s what brought artists like The Staples Singers and Otis Reading to Stax Records in Memphis, where, for the first time, white and black artists recorded together in the middle of the segregated south. And still, in the mix of musical styles, we can find some common ground.
And then there is Grammy Award winning band Max Baca and Los Texmaniacs. I’ve heard this band a couple of times before. Both times at legendary local music venues: Poor David’s Pub and then at the Kessler. Max is a master of the Bajo Sexto, the Mexican 12 stringed instrument—and maybe he’ll tell us about the time Keith Richards offered to buy it from him!
Their musical style stems from the Conjunto tradition. Their music is quintessential Texan music. The lyrics may be in Spanish, but the accordions were inspired by the German immigrants to Mexico in the 19th Century. In their music you see a combination of cultures that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
No music could be more fitting to what we are doing here at HRI because we believe that our country is made stronger by the human rights activist from Ethiopia, the young woman from Gambia escaping Female Genital Mutilation, the brilliant young student from El Salvador evading the threats of violent street gangs, and the woman from Mexico fleeing domestic violence.
These are our clients, and our country is richer because they are here.
They bring their talent, grit, perseverance, and passion thus thoroughly enriching our culture.
You’ll see evidence of that in the art at our art auction that has been created by a great group of artists who are telling our clients’ stories artistically.
So, take a break and come celebrate with us.
Did I mention that we’ll have beer and wine?
– Bill Holston
*Tickets to our Rock Your HeArt Out event can be found here.
Silence is Complicity
Prior to becoming the Executive Director of HRI, I had the opportunity, on occasion in my practice, to provide pro bono legal services to Burmese immigrants. On both occasions my clients were members of Christian minorities in this majority Buddhist country. My Chin client was an activist for the National League for Democracy, a group opposing the military junta which then led the country. He was pursued, arrested, and beaten for his activism. His colleague was tortured and executed. Burma had changed its name to Myanmar, but the opposition refused to go along with that, and still called the country Burma. The best known member of the National League for Democracy was Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who at the time of my case, was under house arrest. She was much beloved and supported by freedom-loving people from all over the world and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her political activism and work for democracy.
Burma struggled for years under international sanctions as a result of its widespread human rights abuses. I spoke about those abuses in 2008.
Since then, the country has had significant democratic improvement, with the most dramatic example being the election in 2015 of Aung Sang Suu Kyi to the Parliament. Despite this, the Military maintains significant power in the country.
Ms. Suu Kyi was in the news this week addressing widespread reports of human rights abuses by the Burmese Military against the Rohingya. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority, who have been subjected to widespread abuse for decades.
Burma has over 135 different ethnic groups. The majority Burman group makes up about 2/3 of the population and is primarily Buddhist. There has been widespread unrest by all of the ethnic groups for many years as a result of the acts of oppression and exploitation by the Burmese Military.
The Rohingya, however, have taken the brunt of the worst mistreatment:
“The Rohingya people are not recognized by the government as an ethnic nationality of Burma, and thus suffer from some of the worst discrimination and human rights abuses of all the people of Burma. Estimates put the Rohingya population of Burma at close to 2 million, living mainly in Rakhine State, and many more live as refugees in neighboring countries like Bangladesh.”
The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees reports widespread serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, gang rape and burning of entire villages.
The report concludes:
“The attacks against the Rohingya population in the area (killings, enforced disappearances, torture and inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, arbitrary detention, deportation and forced transfer as a result of violence and persecution) seems to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity (as the High Commissioner concluded already in June 2016)”
Ms. Suu Kyi has been experiencing widespread criticism for her silence about the Rohingya.
Most notably, fellow Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote her a public letter:
“My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country,” says Tutu in his open letter.
Recently, Ms. Suu Kyi broke her silence, but for many her remarks were inadequate:
“As she (Ms. Suu Kyi) spoke, more than 400,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority long repressed by the Buddhists who dominate Myanmar, had fled a military massacre that the United Nations has called a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’ The lucky ones are suffering in makeshift camps in Bangladesh where there is not nearly enough food or medical aid.”
She is in a difficult position, and in some ways it is easier to be a critic of the government than a participant. I don’t judge her. I’m not in any position to lecture someone in her tenuous position.
However, for those of us interested in human rights, it’s important not to be silent. Dr. King once said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
Dr. King wrote that from a jail cell in Birmingham, in my home state of Alabama. There are lots of issues in the world today, and sometimes it just gets exhausting. So, pick one issue, one you care about, and speak up about it. Write your congressional representative; write a letter to the editor, but don’t be silent.
Your voice matters.
– Bill Holston
American Detention Centers
Last week I read a story about some pro bono lawyers from the Dykema law firm in San Antonio who tried two asylum cases for two Afghani families. The families were targeted by the Taliban, and the law firm assisted them in obtaining asylum. I wrote the lawyers and congratulated them. I’ve been doing this work for over twenty five years and these are difficult cases to win. Every time.
The story ended great, but one of the details of their story was quite concerning:
“The cases were further complicated,” Govindaiah said, “by the fact that the women spoke Dari and also were held in a detention center in Karnes County, which is about 60 miles from downtown San Antonio.”
This is disturbing for a lot of reasons. For many years we have been providing pro bono legal assistance to asylum seekers from all over the world. I’ve personally represented clients from twenty one different countries. These include brave pro democracy advocates from Ethiopia, genocide survivors from Rwanda and persecuted Christians from Eritrea. Most had been tortured in their home country. Because they often had to escape their country in a rush, and lacking the time or even opportunity to obtain a visa, they often utilized dangerous and expensive smuggling routes to make their way to the United States. In most cases they crossed into our country and applied for Asylum at our border. They were given what is called a ‘credible fear interview’ and then paroled into the United States. They made their way to Dallas and to the great pro bono lawyers of HRI, and we assisted them in their legal case. It’s important to note that they did not break the law. They have the legal right to request asylum at the Border.
According to the Government: “To apply for asylum in the United States, you may ask for asylum at a port-of-entry (airport, seaport, or border crossing)…”
The chilling part of the story of the successful asylum seekers is that they were all locked up during their case. This is wrong for many reasons.
First, asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable. By definition they have suffered human rights abuses, and are the survivors of some of the worst examples of abuse. Many suffer from PTSD. Often they have been tortured or at least imprisoned in the country they are fleeing. They have fled inhuman conditions and at great risk travelled to the US, because they believe that the United States would be a refuge for them. To respond not with compassion, but with prison is a particularly vile act.
Second, Detention centers tend to be located in particularly remote places. This makes it extremely difficult to access the legal representation, not to mention provide access to free legal services.
Third, detention is an extremely expensive and unnecessary option:
According to Non profit, Detention Watch:
Detention in Numbers
- Number of beds 34,040
- Number of people detained each year 441,000 (FY 2013 – latest numbers)
- Cost per day 124 for adult detention
$343 for family detention
- Detention budget$2.3 billion (FY 2016)
- Number of facilities 209
- Percent operated by private companies 62 percent
- Number of deaths since 2003167
This problem has increased because of the increased use of private detention facilities which introduces the profit motive into this system. Contracts provide for minimum bed guarantees, providing incentives to artificially increase the rate of incarceration.
According to a report from our colleagues at Human Rights First
“The new data analyzed in today’s report shows that the number of asylum seekers held in detention has increased nearly threefold from 2010 to 2014, and parole grants for arriving asylum seekers have decreased from 80 percent to 47 percent from 2012 to 2015. In some cases, ICE has refused to release asylum seekers who sought protection at a U.S. border or port of entry by claiming that they are considered enforcement priorities, and those asylum seekers who are sent to detention after requesting protection at U.S. airports or other formal ports of entry are not provided access to prompt immigration court custody hearings.”
It’s worth noting that all of this began under previous administrations. However one of the things that has changed has been explicit statements by this administration about the increased use of detention and the decreased use of parole.
Sec. 2. Policy. It is the policy of the executive branch to:
(a) secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism;
(b) detain individuals apprehended on suspicion of violating Federal or State law, including Federal immigration law, pending further proceedings regarding those violations;
A few months ago I read about. Mexican journalist Martin Mendez Pineda , who fled death threats and sought asylum in the United States.
He was detained and wrote this about the experience:
“I was transferred to another privately run detention center: Cibola County Correctional Center, in Milan, N.M. The transfer was the worst torture. They had us chained by our feet and hips, with our hands pressed against our chests, without being able to move for more than 26 hours, as if we were dangerous criminals.”
Eventually he abandoned his asylum case and said this about his efforts to seek asylum in the United States:
“Maltreatment, humiliation and abuse by local authorities became increasingly disagreeable, as I was transferred to three different detention centers and in each one of them the psychological torment increased, damaging my health further, the reason why I made the decision to leave that country was because i prefer to be in another nation than to live locked in that place in which, from the first day I entered, I recognized as (the same as hell),”
This is one of the most disturbing stories I know, and to be honest it makes me angry. We have many great volunteer lawyers, who find that representing people who seek refuge in the US, to be the most inspiring work they have ever done. The fact that people seeking refuge here in the United States are locked up, chained and kept in detention is a betrayal of our must fundamental values.
And it needs to stop.
– Bill Holston
How Many Times?
Death toll in San Antonio immigrant-smuggling case rises to 10 read the headline I read yesterday morning. This tragic story concerns a truckload of immigrants who were smuggled into the United States in the back of a semi-tractor trailer. There were 38 individuals in this truck, which had inadequate ventilation, was not air conditioned and inadequate supplies of water. According to news accounts, the heat would have risen to 130 degrees within 20 minutes.
This is not the first incident of this type. In 2003 19 people died from heat related injuries in the back of another tractor trailer. How you react to news like this is probably based on what you think about illegal immigration. The Border between the United States and Mexico is through very harsh desert terrain. It can be deadly. I’ve hiked in stretches of that Chihuahuan Desert, and I have carried twenty or thirty pounds of water on my back. It is forbidding country. I once asked an immigrant acquaintance what it was like to cross the border. He said, shaking his head, “Muchas muchas cascabeles (rattlesnakes)”. Many have died making this perilous journey.
“Since 1998, more than 6,915 migrants have died along the U.S. – border, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics. More than 322 died in 2016 alone, but experts and activists say these numbers are a far cry from reality.”
Some of you may have read this story and said, ‘This is tragic, but it’s why we need a wall.’ Others may simply comment on the callousness of the criminal enterprises who will risk the lives of desperate people if the financial rewards are high enough. But I think there’s another message. It presents another opportunity to consider what the conditions are that was cause people to make the difficult decision to pay criminal cartels to take them to cross another country’s borders? It’s safe to say at least some of these immigrants understand the risks and take them anyway. And these are the hard questions which we face as a country. How are we complicit in these deaths?
As we create more and more barriers for individuals to pursue legal ways to enter the United States, we force desperate people to attempt more and more desperate methods of entry. The world continues to be a dangerous and volatile place and people will do whatever is necessary to provide safety and prosperity for their family. Our country is in the midst of some pretty heartless acts. We are turning asylum seekers away at the border. We are denying visas to people from Venezuela, and also I hear from Egypt. There are desperate people who need refuge. At HRI, we often talk to mothers whose children are threatened with rape and murder in Central America. The police cannot protect them. The police cannot even protect themselves. And now our government is threatening to criminally prosecute these parents if they use a smuggler. People will flee war, poverty and gangs. They will seek the promise of freedom here and we’ll either provide an orderly and legal process for them to do so, or they will seek other riskier options. We have a choice as citizens of this country. Many of them really don’t.
One of our national prophets is Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, who was born Robert Zimmerman in Hibbings, MN. Hibbings has a special place in our heart, as it is the hometown of our beloved Volunteer Coordinator, Elisabeth Hagberg, who does such an extraordinary job of placing our many cases with volunteers. Dylan’s first major hit was the song ‘Blowing in the Wind’. He asked questions prompted by the deaths of civil rights workers and the deaths of boys in the war in Viet Nam. They are questions that are still worth asking. Are we prepared to answer them?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky
Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Melissa Weaver, the director of our Women’s and Children’s program is leaving us. We’re gonna miss her so much. Here’s my letter to thank her for her contribution to HRI, its clients and to me personally.
For almost ten years you’ve been providing excellent legal services to the most vulnerable people in our country: Women and children who are survivors of violence. And you have done it with creativity, diligence, compassion and excellence. You are of course one of the foremost experts in legal protections for immigrant women and children. Your expertise has been most impressive in the appeals you’ve handled in particularly difficult cases. You combine a heart of compassion with a significant intellect, a rare combination.
Hundreds….Literally hundreds of people now are safe to pursue their dreams because you chose to expend your considerable legal talents to protect them. These included women who were escaping the bonds of domestic violence. These are children who were sexually assaulted by family members.
Of course my favorite memory of you is the Summer of 2014. You were (like you’d forget!) 9 months pregnant and we were dealing with the so called ‘surge’ of Central American children. Other agencies were scrambling to learn how to help these kids. But we already knew how, because you’d been doing it for years. You created brand new ways of dealing with the crisis, and started screening kids for relief in groups, because we only had mere days to get paperwork filed to help those kids. You led your excellent team of lawyers with such creativity and skill. And you did that in summer heat while pregnant. That’s one of the most outstanding examples of professionalism I’ve ever seen. The only time you slowed down was actually to give birth!
Melissa’s Daughter, Rebecca draws bill holston a photo
Of course you’ve heard many many sad stories. And I know those stories have on occasion made you sad. But imagine how some of those stories would have ended without you! You know, most people can’t say, what you can say, ‘People are alive because of me.’ And that is no exaggeration. At the same time, you maintained a positive and encouraging outlook, despite all of the stress. I picture you laughing in our office, and that’s how I will remember you here.
Of course one of the most impressive things about your time here is that you balanced this demanding job with raising three smart, fun and excellent young women. I have NO doubt that they will all be women who are world changers like their mom. I always loved it when you brought your girls up here. And I love the artwork on my wall that marks their time here. One of my favorites is this picture created by your oldest daughter Rebecca. It’s such a great illustration of the superhero she calls mom. You won’t ever have to wonder what your superpower would be, it’s Legal Services to Women and Children. And you have earned a rest from that work. Enjoy some time off. You’ve earned it.
One of the effects of working in the area of international human rights law, is that we typically see a particularly dark picture of different countries. As an example, this work has completely altered how I look at the Olympics. I see these great athletes from countries and my very first thought is about the human rights abuses of some of those countries. Are the Eritrean athletes going to use this as an opportunity to seek asylum, I wonder. It’s a valid, but skewed perspective. So, it’s important to reflect about the cultures of the places that our client’s flee. In fact it’s a large part of what seeking refuge means: Leaving behind the country you love for a foreign and sometimes very different culture.
I was reminded of this recently as we discussed a potential case from the country of Mali. Mali is a French speaking country in North Africa. It has been in the news most recently because of a resurgence of terrorist activity there. In 2012 militants from the Al-Qaeda-allied Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) took control of parts of the country, including the ancient city of Timbuktu. They imposed their extremist ideology, including the destruction of ancient and culturally significant buildings and shrines. This was followed by the intervention by French military forces in 2013. This ultimately led to a series of retaliatory terrorist actions. The most dramatic of these was in 2015, when militants took 170 hostages and killed 21 of them in a shooting at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, the capital city of Mali.
It’s a shame that this culturally rich country is popularly known for acts of violence, when its cultural heritage is so abundant. I love music. And my tastes are eclectic. I am drawn to roots music of all types: Cajun Zydeco from Louisiana, Conjunto and Tejano from northern Mexico, the pure bluegrass of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and classic country like Jimmy Rodgers. But perhaps my favorite style of music is the Delta Blues of Mississippi. It is elemental music, and arises from the pain and real life of an oppressed people, the African Americans of Mississippi. I grew up in Alabama and the reputation of the unmitigated racism of that region is warranted. But out of the pain, comes some of the most authentic and invigorating music, the Delta Blues. But did you know that many experts believe the roots of this music begins in Africa, and more specifically in Mali!
Many American artists have drawn the comparison, including Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, and Led Zepplin’s Robert Plant.
Martin Scorsese explores this in his film, Feels Like Going Home, where he interviews musician Corey Harris. He explains:
“The use of the pentatonic scale is shared, as well as the use of the flat 7th note, or the blue note,” says Harris. The fact that traditional Malian music is played primarily with stringed instruments such as the kora (a harp-like instrument) and the ngoni (a small lute-like instrument, possibly the precursor to banjo) makes the bond with the guitar-dominated American blues all the more understandable.” -Martin Scorsese
The theory is that the seeds of this music came to the United States with the terrible human rights abuse of slavery, and subsequently morphed into traditional American music. Then to complete the circle, those electric blues travelled back to Mali, inspiring modern Malian bands such as Tinarawin, whose members were Toureg nomads who met in a refugee camp, and legendary Malian singer Ali Touri.
The world is certainly an interconnected place, and we should celebrate that the music of American rock bands are inspired by itinerate Mississippi bluesmen, who were in turn building on ancient African musical roots.
But that’s not all. Timbuktu, a city on Mali was a center of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th centuries. Over 700,000 manuscripts have survived, including religious texts, poetry and novellas. These manuscripts were carefully preserved. Being that it was a center for Sufi Islam, the city contained many ancient shrines and mausoleums of Sufi saints.
So what difference does all this make? Why write about Delta Blues, when so many human rights issues exist? It is important to realize that countries with serious human rights abuses also have rich cultures, and that when people flee those places, they bring some of that culture with them. We Americans are rightly proud of our heritage, but that word heritage is a tricky word, and it’s important to remember that even the most American of ideas, like blues and jazz, stand on the foundations of ancient art forms. Our culture is derived and built on many other cultures. That’s part of the beauty of it. That is part of who we are as the United States, and as long as we provide refuge to people that culture will continue to develop in new and exciting ways.
Can we talk? I’ve become pretty exhausted of hearing the constant stream of negativity about immigrants. The rhetoric betrays some of the most fundamental values of our nation. But mostly, it does not fit my personal experience. I have been providing free legal services to immigrants for about 30 years. I’m not saying every immigrant I’ve ever met was perfect. Immigrants are like any other group of people, with the same positive and negative traits. However, as a result of overwhelmingly positive encounters with individual immigrants, I believe that immigrants have and continue to make my life richer. And my experiences with our clients have reinforced that view. I believe our clients are some of the most resilient, enterprising and patriotic people, I’ve ever met. We are a stronger community because of that.
Immigration is not an abstract thing for me. And it’s not only because of my work. In large part my attitude has been influenced by changes in my Dallas neighborhood in Casa View. When we moved into this neighborhood, most of our neighbors were white. But over the last 30 years our street has become a very immigrant dominated-neighborhood. I have great neighbors. Many are from Mexico, but others are from Central America. When someone generalizes about immigrants, by calling them rapists or criminals, I am personally offended. Are they talking about my Guatemalan neighbor who drove me to the ER, when I fell off a ladder? Are they talking about the man from Mexico, playing soccer with his kids in the front yard, who is my next door neighbor?
Over the last 30 years, I have heard lots of generalizations around the issue of immigration. Now however, the sheer nastiness of the rhetoric has reached an all time high. “Don’t you know any immigrants?” I think. But that’s where the disconnect begins. People’s political opinions are in the abstract, often based on a steady diet of television and radio talking heads. Those ideas are challenged with proximity to individuals, to human faces.
Not all of our neighbors experiencing hateful speech are Hispanic. My Muslim friends have had to hear a steady stream of terrible insulting language, really for years. It hurts me to think about our board member and my good friend, Hind Jirrah, who runs a domestic violence shelter and how she must react to some of the most vitriolic rhetoric addressed to the Muslim community. She is a brilliant and loving Muslim woman. I think about her and my other Muslim friends when I hear generalizations about Muslims. I think, ‘Hey, you are talking about people I know and respect.” My personal connections drive my views.
How do we increase those personal connections? My friend Jin Ya, herself a Chinese immigrant had the idea to invite two Muslim women, one from Syria and the other from Iraq, to prepare a meal and invite a crowd. She called it, Break Bread, Break Borders. The invitation read, “We bring the community together to share food and conversation with some of our newest neighbors.” This dinner was demonstrating in a small scale, what our country is hopefully experiencing: individual relationships trump politics. We had a great time over the meal, and the Kibbeh was fantastic!
It’s time for those of us who want our country to continue to be a welcoming place, to stand up for our neighbors. Maybe your neighborhood isn’t diverse. If you don’t have friends who are immigrants, make some. There are plenty of opportunities in a city as diverse as Dallas to do so. Or you could become more involved with all of the nonprofit agencies like HRI that work with immigrant communities.
I recently put a sign in my front yard that expresses my view about this:
“No importa de donde eres estamos contentos que seas nuestro vecino.” -It doesn’t matter where you are from, we’re glad you are our neighbor.
march 8, 2017
Today is International Women’s Day.
This is a special day at Human Rights Initiative. First of all, we have an entirely female staff. Well almost. We have thirteen strong and passionate women and one old dude. They inspire me every day.
People walk into our office afraid. They are always greeted by Elean Martinez, our Client Intake Manager. She hears their story and decides if we can help them. It’s a very demanding job and she does it really well. If we can help them, they go to an intake with one of our five women attorneys. Melissa is the director of our Women’s and Children’s Program. She’s helped hundreds of women and girls flee violence and abuse. Mary Durbin in our Asylum Lawyer. She worked extremely hard in the last quarter of the year to file multiple asylum cases prior to Inauguration Day. She’s literally saved lives. Marcela Evans is the Immigrant Children’s Project Attorney. She cares so deeply and fights so hard for these kids. Carol Jablonski has volunteered for years for us. NO ONE is a better fighter for women and children. And if a case is unsuccessful, our client can know that Chris Mansour, our appellate attorney will fight for YEARS to make that case right. She has successfully handled multiple appeals where our clients finally get their rights respected by the courts. All of these cases are worked on by our talented legal assistants. Zeyla Gonzalez has worked so many hours for so many children, assisted by our agency. She started here as a volunteer and has worked very hard to become a talented legal assistant. Kristina Morales, has with hard work and great humor, worked on dozens of asylum cases. Our clients have hope because of their hard work.
While our client’s cases are pending, they have so very many social service needs. Zainab Ellis, our social service director is tireless in making sure our clients receive excellent medical and other social service care. She’s ably assisted by Elisandra Cruz, who with intelligence and creativity makes sure our clients can live while their cases take years to proceed. Kavita Chopra is my Deputy Director. She’s my right hand (well maybe both hands). She has so many talents that it’s hard to list them all. But if you’ve ever met her, you were struck by her intelligence and warmth. De’Jonnae Boyd works so hard at telling our story. She does that with creativity, skill and passion. We are a volunteer driven organization. All of our clients are served by volunteers, and our Volunteer Coordinator, Elisabeth Hagberg makes sure that every single volunteer has an excellent experience with us.
Our agency was started by two strong women: Serena Connelly, a social worker, and Betsy Healy, a skilled human rights lawyer. Our Board President is Aubrey Meyers, who was a pro bono volunteer lawyer for us for many years. She is a skilled leader.
Our agency fights hard for the rights of women. These might be women escaping domestic violence, female genital mutilation or sexual assault. And it’s worth noting, if they were helped by Human Rights Initiative, they were helped by women.
Last year we lost one of my favorite artists, Leonard Cohen. In his song, Sisters of Mercy he sang:
“Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.”
I got to our office early. A client was waiting. I don’t know his whole story, but I do know he was an asylum seeker and his journey was very likely a long and difficult one. And I know that he was served and comforted by the strong women who work here at Human Rights Initiative. He was lucky to find them here, working, just like they do every day.
February 03, 2017
Are We Still That Nation? The #MuslimBan
DO YOU REMEMBER 9-11?
Of course. Extremists who claimed to be acting as Muslims committed a senseless act of terror. Thousands died. Do you recall what President Bush said about Muslims days afterward?
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race — out of every race.
America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.
This is what leaders do. The react with dignity restraint and compassion.
Last Friday evening President Trump signed another in a series of far reaching and xenophobic executive orders. He titled this one: EXECUTIVE ORDER: PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES
Make no mistake it doesn’t do that. In fact it does the opposite, while betraying the most fundamental values we hold as Americans
The Order states:
“….the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred ….the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own….,”
…and then commences to do that very thing as official policy of our country. Three of the executive orders on so-called “border security” do a lot of things that I find really troubling, but I want to just discuss a single issue: it discriminates against Muslims. The executive order “suspends new refugee admissions for 120 days, and blocks travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia — for 90 days. Syrian refugees are banned indefinitely.” http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/31/512678699/trumps-immigration-order-is-not-a-ban-on-muslims-homeland-security-chief-says These are all Muslim-majority countries, so clearly the impact will be on Muslims. Then to make its intent even clearer it creates an exception for those who are religious minorities from those countries, a thinly veiled exception for Christians.
I have personally represented Christian asylum seekers for years, and advocated for their rights. I have gone to Immigration court for Iranian, Eritrean, Egyptian, Pakistani and Turkish religious asylum applicants. I know what harm Christians fear in places without freedom of religion. So with that in mind, please know I absolutely OPPOSE a policy of giving Christians preference in refugee admissions. We should continue to follow international law and provide refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution without discrimination.
I was once asked what motivated me to help persecuted Christians. I replied, my motivation wasn’t their faith it was mine. As a Christian I’m interested in welcoming strangers, and that has and will continue to include Muslims, and atheists for that matter.
This preference for Christian refugees is opposed by many Christian leaders because of its discriminatory purpose. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/29/us/christian-leaders-denounce-trumps-plan-to-favor-christian-immigrants.html
The discriminatory purpose of this order has been admitted by certain advisors to the administration. According to the Atlantic:
His close adviser, Rudy Giuliani, told Fox News in a live interview that the executive order Trump just signed sprang from a committee Giuliani formed for the specific purpose of constructing a Muslim ban in a way that would pass legal muster! https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/what-conservatives-get-wrong-about-the-executive-order/514940/
While the ban is on its face temporary, the head of Homeland Security, Kelly “said for the first time that the some of the restrictions that caused confusion and sparked protests over the weekend could be extended well into the future. ‘Some of those countries that are currently on the list may not be taken off the list anytime soon,” he said.’ “ http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-trailguide-updates-1485885194-htmlstory.html
Finally, this executive order makes us less safe. A large group of foreign service professionals have pointed out that bans like this play into the ISIS narrative that the United States is anti-Muslim.
We as a country have welcomed refugees in the past. A few months ago, I was giving a talk, and someone asked me, ‘We have all these people. They are a different religion. They don’t speak English and they have no money. What do we do about that.’ I replied, “If you drive a few miles from here you’ll see miles of Vietnamese restaurants and grocery stores and everything you just said applied to them. Our embrace of hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians in the aftermath of the Viet Nam War is a great tribute to what our values are as a country. We are still that nation, aren’t we?
– Bill Holston
January 17, 2017
BONUS POST: Fifth Anniversary
On January 17th I observed my fifth year anniversary as Executive Director at Human Rights Initiative. There have been a lot of changes in the last five years, but there are some things that haven’t changed. One of those is how I (and I know all of you as well) feel about the mission of HRI. Prior to becoming the ED, I was a lawyer in private practice, taking pro bono cases with HRI. I wrote my clients this note:
It is with mixed emotion that I leave the excellent lawyers and staff at Sullivan and Holston (where I’ve been for over 25 years) , and I do that only because the work I’ve done with HRI is the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done, I sincerely believe it is my calling to work with this great organization.
I feel exactly the same way today. Well, to be honest it’s even truer now than it was then. Because now I see up close what a great staff we have and just how hard they work for our clients. And I know precisely how valuable and unique our mission is.
There are lots of things that are different today than five years ago, however.
- The sheer volume of our work.In 2012 we had 121 individual clients. Today we have 573. We have 32 affirmative asylum cases and 23 defensive cases.
- Delays and the Backlog. Our cases are taking much longer. In 2012 we were able to achieve decisions in 35% of our asylum cases. This year we saw decisions in 3% of our cases. This is totally out of our control and is based on the backlogs in Court and the Asylum Office. This has serious implications for our clients and in turn for us as an agency.
- Impact on Social Services. At present we have 1.5 staff devoted to social services. Despite this, last year we did 106 education referrals, 174 food referrals, 154 medical referrals, 80 psychological referrals and 252 participants in our annual holiday wish program. Because of delays in cases, we have the challenge of supporting our clients for much longer than we did 5 years ago.
- One positive result of delay is that more of our clients now qualify for work authorizations but that requires a lot of work by our legal assistants. Our great legal assistants do the necessary paperwork for our clients to obtain work authorizations. In 2012 we did 60, this year they did 275.
The Unaccompanied Minor Crisis. In 2014 there were 68,000 unaccompanied minors (mostly from Central America) who were detained by Border patrol. Thankfully HRI was already doing this work, so we were poised to do more. Consequently, in 2012 we had 16 children cases. Today we have 161.
There are other lots of things that have improved. We still have a small staff doing great work. We had 10 employees in 2012, now we have 13. There are three reasons we have been able to keep up with the tremendous growth of our programs:
- Our dedicated staff. Everyone on our staff has the mission of HRI as an integral value in their life and their work ethic shows that.
- Our excellent volunteers. We currently have over 300 volunteer lawyers. We have such great relationships with some of the best law firms in the United States. And we are constantly adding to that list. Some of our lawyers put in hundreds of hours each year helping our clients achieve safe and secure lives in the United States. In addition we had 46 volunteer translators, and volunteer doctors, nurses, counselors, psychologists and many legal and non-legal interns. WE COULD NOT do this work without you.
- Our generous donors. One of the results of the recent election was an outpouring of support. We received donations from all over the United States. We have dramatically increased the number of people who are monthly donors to our program. Some of you, like me, have been donors since HRI opened its doors. And some of you gave your first gift this month. We take EVERY dollar donated to us seriously and try to do the most efficient work possible. If we can get something donated, We Do! Thank you Karbach Brewery, Craft and Growler and Ambiente Wine!
I have so many fond memories over the last five years. The best of all are the smiles on the faces of clients as they hear the good news about their future in the United States or as they are able to be reunited with family members who they have been separated from. Early in my time here I got to see one of my pro bono asylum clients from Ethiopia reunite with his family. That was a good day.
Right now, I’m staring at a photo on my file cabinet. It’s a picture of a 15 year old boy. I recall when he walked into my office in 2014, afraid and given two days by the Judge to find a lawyer. I went to court with him two days later. The photo is of him picking up his green card a few weeks ago. And he’s got big smile on his face. I got to see that. BUT YOU MADE IT HAPPEN!
What Is Your Favorite Holiday?
What is your favorite holiday? Mine is Thanksgiving. Why? Well, in part because gratitude is such a powerful force. And the holiday forces me to spend time thinking about the abundance I have in my life. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said,“When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.”
Surprisingly, gratitude seems to rise from times of trial. Abraham Lincoln initiated the tradition of a national annual day of thanksgiving with a proclamation in 1863, less than two weeks after the battle of Chickamauga, two of the bloodiest days in American history. He wrote: “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” At the height of the depression in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt said in his Thanksgiving proclamation:
“May we ask for guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors. May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another.” -Franklin Roosevelt, 1933
Those are hopeful words written the middle of our country’s darkest days.
All of this was recently brought to mind by a photo of a thanksgiving dinner posted by my client Peter on his Facebook page. Peter was a Pakistani Pastor. He was a street preacher. He would distribute Bibles in a public marketplace. This was permitted until 9-11 when the situation for Christians in Pakistan really deteriorated. For his simple acts he and his family were assaulted and threatened with death. Reluctantly he fled. Back when I was a pro bono lawyer for HRI, I represented him in Immigration Court and we won asylum. I recall this case really well. It was the only case my wife Jill ever got to attend. She had never seen a man’s life hang in the balance in court before and it was a sobering thing to experience. Those of you who are volunteer lawyers know that feeling well.
But that’s what we get to do here at HRI. We get to advocate for people, when the stakes are life and death. But, then then years later we get to see that picture of a family enjoying a beautiful meal together. Free to worship as they wish. And like me you are reminded what a privilege it is to be there with people going through that.
I’ve kept up with Peter. He and his wife now live wonderful successful lives. They are all American citizens and LOVE this country. And me….I’m thankful I got to be a part of that. And because you help us here fulfil our mission at HRI, you are too. Happy Holidays.
OCTOBER 28, 2016
Heart of Darkness
When Francis Ford Coppola wanted to write a nightmarish screenplay about the war in Vietnam, he looked for inspiration in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. The novel is based on Conrad’s early 20th century experience exploring the Congo. It paints a bleak picture of this beautiful area of the world. He then moved the theme to Viet Nam and created Apocalypse Now
At Human Rights Initiative we have been representing asylum seekers from the Congo for our entire 16 year history. Among my earliest asylum cases in the early 1990’s were asylum cases when the country was still known as Zaire, during the reign of Sese Mobutu, more about him later. What is it about this place that has caused it to experience so much heart ache? These modern human rights tragedies do not spring from the air. There is historical context.
The first use of the phrase, “crimes against humanity”, was by the African American minister and journalist, George Washington Williams, in criticizing the policies of Belgian King Leopold in what was then called The Congo Free State.  The Congo Free State was essentially the personal possession of King Leopold and resulted in the misappropriation of millions of dollars in natural resources from the people.
ED Morel in his book titled Red Rubber detailed the atrocities committed by King Leopold in his exploitation of the people of the Congo region, to obtain the tremendous natural resources of rubber and ivory. These atrocities included seizure of land, torture, dismemberment and systematic killing. Morel, along with Roger Casement began what became one of the earliest human rights campaigns in history: the Congo Reform Movement. This movement contained-one of the earliest uses of photography as a tool in a human rights work, as Christian missionaries utilized early Kodak cameras to record the results of torture. These photos showed the physical scars of torture, and graphically illustrated what King Leopold’s atrocities looked like. In addition, literary figures like Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle brought their talent and notoriety to bear to raise awareness of these atrocities. Most estimates are that millions of Congolese died, in what some have defined as a genocide, although one not widely known. In 1908, as a result of the intense international press, the Congo became a Belgian colony, and known as the Belgian Congo.
The Congo became independent in 1960 after over 50 years of Colonial oppression, and finally held free elections. Patrice Lumumba became the first democratic leader of the new nation, and one of the earliest in sub Saharan Africa. Unfortunately he ran into the reality of Cold War politics.
“A dramatic, angry speech he gave …brought Congolese legislators to their feet cheering, left the king startled and frowning and caught the world’s attention. Lumumba spoke forcefully of the violence and humiliations of colonialism, from the ruthless theft of African land to the way that French-speaking colonists talked to Africans as adults do to children, using the familiar “tu” instead of the formal “vous.” Political independence was not enough, he said; Africans had to also benefit from the great wealth in their soil.” (Hothschild, 2011)
This sort of talk was bound to irritate the European powers. In addition, when the West agreed to Congolese requests for assistance, Lumumba made overtures to the Soviet Union. This sealed his fate. With the acquiescence, if not active support of the CIA, Lumumba was abducted, tortured and assassinated. This created an opportunity for a Congolese Army colonel, Mobutu Sese Seko to seize power. Mobutu became a Cold War ally of the United States. He maintained a firm and despotic grip on power for the next 30 years. Mobutu’s theft of resources was at a vast scale.
“The corruption in Zaire is legendary. The “kleptocracy” has its roots in the nineteenth century Congo Free State: Belgium’s King Leopold II used profits from the export of the country’s extensive natural resources to build a personal fortune — profits extracted under conditions of forced labor that included killing workers and chopping off hands if quotas were not met. Mobutu’s ill-gotten wealth is usually estimated at around $5 billion. Stories about his bank accounts in Switzerland and his villas, ranches, palaces, and yachts throughout Europe are legion, as are wide-eyed descriptions of his home at Gbadolite, in northern Zaire, his birthplace; “Versailles in the jungle,” it is called.” (Berkeley, 1993)
Mobutu maintained power by ruthless means. I personally represented multiple asylum applicants from Zaire, the new name Mobutu gave the Congo. All of them told stories of torture and rape at the hands of the brutal security forces.
A VERY PRESENT PAST
Why would the West tolerate this despot? Our cold war policies and Congo’s vital mineral wealth led us to support what was clearly an authoritarian and hugely corrupt government.
“The tremendous mineral wealth of Shaba, with 80 percent of the world’s cobalt reserves and 20 percent of its copper supplies, helped Mobutu secure international military and financial support. The West, and Washington in particular, also had been using Zaire as a weapons supply and staging area for support of the anti-communist Unita rebel movement fighting the Marxist government in Angola.’ (French, 1997)
With the end of the cold war, Mobutu outlived his usefulness to the West, and aid began to dwindle. In the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide, Rwandan and Ugandan backed rebel armies invaded Zaire. Mobutu finally was driven from power and replaced by Joseph Kabila, whose son now leads the country. In the resulting instability and war, which has been characterized by widespread and systematic rape, over 5 million people have died.
William Faulkner, the great Southern American Author wrote:
“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past”.
This is quite relevant to the Congo. What is the context to the human rights abuses that occur there today? This context includes decades of human rights abuses by European powers, over 100 years of exploitation of the tremendous natural resources, and the active interference with democratic development to further western interests. Does this absolve modern day Congolese from responsibility? No. However, it does mean that the West should be prepared to patiently assist in a meaningful way with the development of this country. Often I see the rhetorical question asked about refugees, “Why is this our problem?” Well other than our obligations under international law and our moral responsibility, there is a certain level of responsibility that flows from the fact that we had a hand in the destabilization of the Congo.
There are many signs of hope. One of my friends, Celestine Musekura’s faith based NGO, ALARM, takes teams of lawyers and other volunteers to the Congo and other African Countries to conduct trainings in ethics and peacemaking. It’s an innovative and wise start and they see a lot of progress.
At HRI, we continue to see a lot of people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (renamed after the fall of Mobutu). They share some traits: they are educated and passionate people who were willing to risk everything to make their country a free and prosperous country -and for that they are repaid with torture and imprisonment. They’ve left everything behind and have come to the United States because they believed that in the U.S. we stand for democracy and civil liberties. They have much to offer our country, because without exception, they respect the American ideals of freedom and opportunity. And it’s up to us to welcome them with open arms -to prove that we deserve the confidence that they place in us. Let’s earn their respect.
I’ve just scratched the surface of this fascinating and interesting country. I haven’t even mentioned the rich literary and musical culture of the Congo. For instance, Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s book Tram 83 was on the long list for the Man Booker prize this year.
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo by Michela Wrong
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason Stearns
Berkeley, B. (1993). The Atlantic Monthly; Zaire: An African Horror Story; Vol 272, No. 2; pages 20-28.
French, H. W. (1999). New York Times International; Anatomy of an Autocracy: Mobutu’s 32-Year Reign; https://partners.nytimes.com/library/world/africa/051797zaire-mobutu.html.
Hochschild, A. (1998). King Leopold’s ghost: A story of greed, terror, and heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
September 30, 2016
These Are Times That Try Men
“These are times that try men’s souls.”
Those words were penned by Thomas Paine during the American Revolution. There are eras where people’s characters are tested and this seems to be one of those times.
When you look back at history, you see many examples of people who went against the tide, against popular opinion and stood for what is right. The New York Times recently promoted a Ken Burns Documentary on PBS about Martha Sharp, a 33 year old Unitarian and her husband. The article is titled, ‘Would you hide a Jew from the Nazis?”
The Sharps made the brave decision to help smuggle Jews out of Germany and occupied France in the midst of what would be known later as the Holocaust. They didn’t know that they would be heroes. In fact, they didn’t know if they would survive, because others lost their lives for lesser actions. However for their bravery they were honored by the Nation of Israel with the title ‘Righteous Among the Nations’.
Martha Sharp returned to France, and journeyed to Vichy to plead for permits (laissez-passer) for a group of children -9 of them Jewish- to leave the country, which she eventually received. On November 26, 1940 this group left France, including the three Jewish Diamant sisters (Amalie, Evelyn and Marianne), and Eva Esther Feigl, all of whom, thanks to Martha Sharp’s efforts, were armed with US visas. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1926, Eva Feigl had fled with her parents in 1938, and arrived in France. Arrested as “enemy aliens,” the Feigls desperately sought ways to leave the country. Luckily for them, the Sharps were able to add Eva Esther to this group of children, and take her out of the country. Her parents stayed behind.
We look back at these stories and call these people heroes -and of course they are! We’d like to think we’d be that brave, but would we really? However, their example is relevant to our present times and our present choices. What are the challenges that try our souls now? One of the first things to come to mind is the plight of people fleeing war and chaos, which has resulted in the so called ‘Refugee Crisis. ‘ History is going to judge how the world, and specifically our nation, the United States responded to this. Sadly, I believe we are going to be judged harshly. Our response to the refugee crisis has been tepid at best. And our governments’ modest efforts to increase the number of refugees we resettle have been resisted and criticized by many. The Governor of Texas recently announced that the State of Texas will be withdrawing completely from Refugee Resettlement program. Edward R. Murrow once said that “We are not descended from fearful men.” I hope we will be able to continue to say that. History is not kind to the leaders who turned their backs on Jews who were seeking to flee the Nazi onslaught, most famously when the SS St Louis was denied entry to Cuba and the United States, which resulted in people who were returned to their death. Are we going to be remembered as those who turned their backs on people fleeing for their violence? Or are we going to be remembered as those who stood up for the oppressed?
“We are not descended from fearful men.”
-Edward R. Murrow
I was asked by a reporter what I thought of the Refugee crisis in Europe. I replied, “a more interesting and relevant question is what is our response to the refugee crisis on our border?”. In 2014 over 68,000 unaccompanied children fled the unrelenting gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. They came here for refuge. Our government’s response was the Rocket Docket, where children were handed blank asylum applications and given only days to find a lawyer. It’s the most unjust thing I’ve ever seen as a lawyer. Thankfully, many of you stepped forward and we were able to provide free legal assistance to hundreds of children. This year we watched a lot of those kids get their green cards. But thousands were not so lucky. They went to court unaided, unrepresented and alone. Today our state government turns its back on refugees. There will be history books written about this time. How will we be remembered? Will we be the examples future generations will look at and say, ‘Would we be willing to have done what they did?” I am proud of what we do at Human Rights Initiative. And the only reason we are able to stand on behalf of people fleeing violence is because of you our donors and volunteers. You won’t have to look back with shame on these times. You will know that your souls were tried, and passed the harshest test of all, the test of history.
AUGUST 26, 2016
Freedom Fridays With Bill Holston
Who are the people who have shaped your life? I can think of three people who influenced me towards a passion for human rights work.
I met the first with a seemingly random phone call. I didn’t set out to become a human rights lawyer. I graduated law school in 1981. I hung a shingle and started trying cases. I was representing a client in a court appointed burglary case, with a defendant from El Salvador. I got a call from Brad Ginter, a Mennonite missionary. Brad and his wife were working with Central Americans here. He called to make sure I was doing my job. He asked if I knew about the civil wars in Central America and embarrassed, I said, ‘not really.’ He commenced to tell me about the thousands of Central Americans fleeing civil war from El Salvador and Guatemala -fleeing in hoped of finding refuge in the United States. I then made a single offhand comment that changed my life. I said, ‘If you ever need help, give me a call.’ And he did! Initially I agreed to help obtain guardianship for kids to enroll in school. Later, I took a training in asylum law. My first asylum case was a Guatemalan woman, Martha, whose husband was a labor leader assassinated by a death squad as they took their kids to school. I helped her get asylum, after that I was hooked. Brad worked with a local nonprofit, Proyecto Adelante, and my policy was that once I finished an asylum case, I’d ask for another one. This led me to provide pro bono legal representation for political and religious asylum applicants from twenty different countries. Over the next twenty years. I found my calling.
The second was one of my pro bono clients. A client from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) changed my view of why I did this work. My client had been a pro-democracy activist during the tyrannical reign of Sese Mobutu. This resulted in his arrest. He managed to escape and make his way to the United States. He was lucky to be alive. His wife and children were in hiding in Brazzaville. I assisted this young man to obtain political asylum here. Months later, he showed up unannounced at my office with his wife and children. They were no longer in hiding. Instead, they were making a new life in the United States. He introduced me to them and said, “I wanted to thank you in person.” After he thanked me, I told him rather casually that it was my pleasure. He looked at me, paused, and said, “No, I know what you did for me, you gave me my life.” Then it hit me. It was I who was getting the most out of this relationship. Most people don’t have a career where they get to hear that. Most lawyers never hear something like that. I knew then, at that very moment, that this was the most enriching work I could possibly do. I learned that it was a privilege to represent clients like him.
BETSY, THE TRAILBLAZER
The third was one of the founders of Human Rights Initiative, Betsy Healy. I met Betsy when she was a young associate attorney at a downtown Dallas law firm. Unlike me, she DID go to law school to do human rights work. I was her mentor lawyer for her first asylum client, who was from the Congo. We spent hours on the phone talking through the strategy of how to obtain asylum for her client as well as just encouraging her in her desire to do pro bono work. She won that case! She went on to leave her job (and consequentially, her private law firm paycheck) to found Human Rights Initiative. Her vision, along with co-founder, Serena Connelly, was to do work of compassion with excellence. She established the policy of having very high standards for our lawyers, our volunteer lawyers, and staff. And because of her I was able to do pro bono legal work for the next twelve years, before becoming Executive Director here.
We all stand on the shoulders of others, I know I do. It inspires me to make time for others as they reach out. Who knows how that will end? I am certain that Brad Ginter had no idea the number of lives he would touch because of the inspiration he gave me. And I intend to pass that on.