Ripple effects from “advocacy in action”

We’ve shared lots of information about the Justice Lab effort that, in collaboration with many partners, led the City to decide to stop charging parents for the costs of their child’s incarceration. But Monday’s panel discussion about this example of “advocacy in action” brought out an additional point: social justice efforts can have a ripple effect.

L to R: Prof. Colleen Shanahan, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, parent Kameelah Davis-Spears, student Wesley Stevenson, YSRP Co-Director Lauren Fine, and students Kelsey Grimes and Sela Cowger. Photo by Abraham Gutman.

Thus, the fact that City Council, the Department of Human Services, the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, and Temple law students were able – despite their differing roles — to cooperate in achieving this policy change had implications beyond the issue of incarceration costs. In a sometimes fractious political environment, “it showed,” DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said, “that we can work together.”

Likewise, Philadelphia’s decision to stop charging parents may have implications for other counties, since the State is now considering revising statewide guidance on the issue.

And there’s more: the discussion is also no longer just about charging parents of incarcerated children. City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson stated he’s “in it for the long haul” of questioning the array of fines and fees that further impoverish people whose incomes are already too low.

It’s an encouraging set of ripples. And it was encouraging, too, to hear Councilman Johnson say that often in government, “the best common sense comes from the activists.”

Guest post: refugee and travel bans

Temple Law students Lilah Thompson and Kimya Forouzan share their reflections on the third event in the Sheller Center’s “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series.

Last week, Professors Jaya Ramji-Nogales and Peter Spiro, and Jonathan Grode, Esq. spoke about the Refugee and Travel Bans imposed by Executive Order on January 27, 2017 and March 6, 2017.

For attorney and Temple Law alum Jonathan Grode, the effects were felt personally by his clients, the Assali family, who were coming to the United States through a family-based category. Although their process began in 2003, they were unable to travel to the United States until January of this year. Subsequently, they got caught up in the travel ban, and Mr. Grode was called to help.

President Trump has stated on numerous instances that his goal is a “Muslim ban.” However, the Assalis, a Christian family, were still excluded from entering the United States because they came from one of the countries on the travel ban list. Mr. Grode was eventually able to get the Assalis back into the United States after much legal and political footwork, as well as appeals to the media. However, the process was difficult and uncertain. Mr. Grode, who witnessed the ultimate family reunification at JFK Airport, stated that the moment was “like watching your child be born.”

In an effort to justify his refugee and travel bans, President Trump has persistently mischaracterized refugees. He has called refugees “illegal immigrants,” and has stated that until the government can institute an “extreme vetting” process, no refugees should be allowed into the U.S. This begs many questions: Who are refugees? Where do they come from? Why do they flee? How are they screened and vetted?

Who qualifies as a refugee?

In order to be deemed a refugee, an individual must prove that they have have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Over 21 million people are refugees, 51% of whom are children. The number of refugees in the world is currently at the highest level ever recorded in human history.

Why do refugees flee?

Currently, 53% of refugees worldwide come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the violent civil war in 2011. While situations in countries facing mass displacement and flight are different, they share important commonalities, including violence, instability, and persecution. Although President Trump has lumped refugees in with “radical Islamic terrorists,” refugees are in fact often fleeing the same terror that the U.S. is claiming to be fighting. Refugees are not simply crossing borders looking for a new life; they are forced out of their homes because it is too dangerous to survive there.

How are refugees screened, vetted, and processed to come to the United States?

As Prof. Ramji-Nogales stated, “we are already conducting extreme vetting.” In fact, Prof. Ramji-Nogales pointed out, refugees receive “the most extensive set of checks of anyone entering the United States.” Under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), an interagency process that includes three primary U.S. Government agencies—Department of State, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—refugees are vetted based on specific requirements. This includes an in-person interview with DHS, security checks, and a medical exam. Due to these strict requirements, the screening process alone takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months. In other words, refugees are lawfully entering the United States. Once they are approved and processed to come to the U.S., refugees start on a path to citizenship.

How much does the United States do to help refugees?

Prof. Ramji-Nogales described the number of refugees the U.S. takes as a “drop in the bucket.” The ceiling for refugee admission in the U.S. is set each year; in 2015, it was 70,000. In 2017, President Trump halted even this small contribution to resettling the world’s most vulnerable people.

How does the Muslim Ban fit into the larger global issue of refugee resettlement?

Professor Spiro detailed the timeline of the recent Muslim Ban and its effects on the global issue of refugee resettlement. He detailed the specifics of the first ban, implemented on January 27, 2017, which suspended U.S. entry for those from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Sudan. The order went into effect immediately, and created chaos in airports throughout the United States. Additionally, the ban affected not just refugees, but also visa and green card holders, many of whom had been residing in the United States for extended periods of time but had simply traveled outside of the country when the bans went into effect. On February 3rd, a nationwide temporary restraining order was issued, and Customs & Border Protection resumed “standard policy.”

On March 6th, a second ban was ordered. The new order affected individuals from the same countries as before, although Iraq was excluded and it no longer included existing visa holders. District courts in Hawaii and Maryland shortly thereafter issued nationwide preliminary injunctions blocking the second ban.

Why is this all important?

There is a misperception that refugees are somehow dangerous terrorists. The idea that the U.S. can skirt its international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention to take in refugees because we equate refugees with terrorists is illogical, immoral, and illegal.

When we turn our back on refugees, we tell the world that the U.S. cannot tell the difference between a refugee, who is fleeing terror, from a terrorist, who is the oppressor. Our action says that, even with all of the facts about what refugees face, and the fact that they are screened and vetted more than any other individual who sets foot on U.S. soil, we do not care to help. It says that U.S. citizens deserve peace of mind over a refugee child’s safety from violence or death.

However, this can change. We can take in more refugees. We can fulfill our obligations under international law. We can support non-profit organizations resettling refugees, like HIAS Pennsylvania and Nationalities Service Center here in Philadelphia.

If we can contribute anything to this situation, it is information and understanding. In the face of fear politics, we must come together as a community to better understand the refugee process so we can better act towards changing the narrative.

For more information about immigration and refugee law, please check out this Resource Guide, created by Carla Wale from the Law Library.


Guest post: crime and policing

Guest blogger and Temple Law student Samantha Ramagano shares her thoughts on the second panel in our “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series.

In January, former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated that the Department of Justice investigation of the Chicago Police Department had found “a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force” in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Only a little more than a month later, new Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DOJ would be scaling back on investigations of police departments.

This policy shift seemed like a step backwards for civil rights and the Department’s push to end racial discrimination and the use of excessive force by police department nationwide. (A history of DOJ’s work in this area is here.) Not knowing how the new administration would affect efforts at reforming policing in my own community of Philadelphia, I found myself looking for answers at the Sheller Center’s “Crime and Policing” panel discussion last week.

The message I took away from the event was a hopeful, albeit complicated one: real reform should not focus on policing alone, but on the entire criminal justice system. Because reform requires a holistic approach, potentially harmful policy decisions and rhetoric at the federal level will not derail the process, although they could slow it down.

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Ramsey summed it up well when he said that the focus of reform cannot be on policing alone. While that may be the aspect of criminal justice reform that gets the most media scrutiny, there are other aspects of the system that are just as much in need of attention.

Luckily, these are areas in which we, the public, can make a real difference.  For example, Meg Reiss, from the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, noted that prosecutors at the local level are publicly elected officials, so paying attention to these elections is extremely important, as well as continuing to hold these officials accountable between election cycles. The point is, not all hope is lost and while the road may be long, a more holistic approach to criminal justice reform will pay off in the long run, as long as we are all willing to put in the work.

Guest post: moving forward on criminal justice reform

Guest blogger Liza B. Fleming, a student at Temple Law, shares her reflections on last week’s Sheller-Center-sponsored panel on crime and policing (the second in our “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series).

“We need to be able to keep moving forward,” said Charles Ramsey, discussing police and criminal justice reform under the Trump administration. The Sheller Center panel, “Understanding the Headlines: Crime and Policing,” featured Ramsey, former Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner and co-Chair of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; former prosecutor Meg Reiss, now leading the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Lauren Ouziel, former federal prosecutor and Temple Law professor.

Professor Ouziel began by outlining some Obama administration criminal justice reform themes and those we can expect to see from the Trump administration. During the Obama administration, she explained, the government lowered penalties, including reducing crack cocaine penalties. Additionally, Justice Department directives encouraged prosecutors to effectuate reforms through charging discretion. Finally, successful policing reforms included an increase in pattern-and-practice investigations of police departments. By contrast, under the Trump administration, she noted that we expect to see less interest in charging and sentencing reform; a possible desire to enforce federal laws in states with legalized marijuana; and a decrease in investigations of police departments

The shift from the Obama to the Trump administration will set back the clock on criminal justice reform. “The emphasis on reform is going to be impacted by the current Justice Department,” Charles Ramsey conceded. But it became clear that the urgency of reform is not a product of the newly elected Trump administration; there have always been areas for potential reform. And with less interest in reform in the White House, change likely will occur on the local level. Meg Reiss noted, “There is so much opportunity with your local prosecutor to really drive change.” She explained that private funding and private organizations that support criminal justice would drive the progress. Thus, I was left with a hopeful message that even though the federal government will not be supporting reform, both the public and local organizations are finding a role in criminal justice reform. With that, we can keep moving forward.

Liza has also put together a set of links for further reading.




Guest post: border security and interior enforcement

Guest blogger Anne Bonfiglio, a second-year student at Temple Law, shares her reflections on last week’s Sheller-Center-sponsored panel (the first in our “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series).

Midway through the Q&A of last week’s panel on Border Security and Interior Enforcement, a student prefaced a question with the comment, “this is really depressing.”  Exiting the event, a professor confessed that only seconds before that remark a colleague had whispered the same to her.  For those who care about the rights of immigrants, January’s executive orders certainly are disheartening.  For those in the country without status, they are terrifying.  But I left with a more hopeful takeaway: these orders are vulnerable in the face of resistance.

The lecture, given by Professors Ramji-Nogales and Spiro, focused on the two Executive Orders signed January 25, 2017.  The first, “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” orders the construction of the infamous border wall.  The second, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” attacks “sanctuary jurisdictions” by removing their eligibility for Federal grants.  Additionally, these orders authorize an expansion of detention facilities, expedited removal, and immigration officer hiring, expand the definition of a criminal alien, and require the publication of data supporting the President’s anti-immigrant position.

On their face, these provisions are alarming.  Unfortunately, some, such as the expansion of expedited removal, are well within the President’s statutory authority (though they may present constitutional questions).  But others are less secure.  Some provisions, including increased hiring, detention, and the wall, are subject to Congressional budgetary approval.  Others, like the various reporting obligations, have inadequate infrastructure.  And the crackdown on sanctuary jurisdictions has at least three possible legal arguments against it: precedents prohibiting the commandeering of local law enforcement, constraining the use of funding to force compliance, and basic Fourth Amendment Protections.

While these orders have yet to be challenged in court, they can be resisted, whether through lawsuits or local community support of undocumented residents.  As an immigrants’ rights advocate, I find inspiration in these possibilities.  Yes, recent policy is depressing and the toll on families is staggering.  But it is important that one doesn’t become overwhelmed by these costs. Immigrant advocates are mobilizing; as social justice lawyers and students, it is our job to promote an understanding of the legal arguments available in this fight.

Anne has put together two sets of links for further reading — one comprising legal sources, news and commentary, the other a collection of “know your rights” and other materials for community education and organizing