Gloria Steinem and Advocates Applaud NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson for His Commitment to Criminal Justice Reform

Our joint statement on Speaker Johnson’s Call for the Equality Model

Speaker Johnson’s Call for the Equality Model is the right step to protect and promote the well-being of those who are sex trafficked and individuals in the sex trade while holding accountable those who harm them.

As leading direct service providers, women’s rights, anti-trafficking and youth activists, immigrant, gender and racial justice advocates, child welfare advocates, and sex trade survivors, we applaud City Council Speaker Corey Johnson for his leadership in calling for meaningful criminal justice reform in New York City.

In particular, we commend the Speaker’s support for the repeal of the “loitering for purposes of engaging in prostitution” offense, which permits law enforcement to make often arbitrary arrests based on untenable suspicions of prostitution. These arrests have been used as a discriminatory tactic and reports show that the law’s usage disproportionately targets women and girls of color as well as transwomen and girls.

Speaker Johnson also declared his support for the Equality Model (also known as the Nordic Model) and called for urgent action in addressing prostitution and sex trafficking. This legal framework solely decriminalizes people in prostitution while only targeting those who harm them, including pimps and sex buyers.

Key to the Equality Model is its directive to create and implement comprehensive services, including trauma-informed medical and mental health services, housing, education, and job training, for all people in prostitution. Speaker Johnson’s announcement concerning his commitment to opening a center that will provide wrap-around services to individuals in the sex trade is an important step in the right direction.

New York City prides itself in being at the forefront of protecting human rights, especially those of the most marginalized populations among us. The overwhelming majority of those in prostitution are marginalized women, girls, transwomen and girls, especially of color. In our city, most of these individuals are New Yorkers; others are undocumented immigrants who have likely been sex trafficked. Many of us are part of and all of us work with these communities.

The Equality Model’s goal is to promote and protect the economic security, health and social equality of the most disenfranchised women and transwomen while safeguarding them from violence and discrimination. In tandem with providing comprehensive services, the City must also invest in education and training, and commit to changes in policy and practice to eradicate discrimination and mistreatment by law enforcement and the judicial system. Already, due to grassroots efforts, we’ve seen improvements. Through training and engagement with law enforcement, arrests of pimps and traffickers have slowly increased since 2016 when the NYPD committed to targeting “pimps and johns” and investing in long-term investigations, while arrests of individuals selling sex have steadily decreased each year.

The sex trade is where sex trafficking happens. Every dollar that feeds the multi-billion dollar sex trade comes from sex buyers who treat people in the sex trade like commodities and cause immense, long-term harm. The Speaker courageously recognized that the sex trade is inherently antithetical to equality for all and affirmed that we have the power to fight it.

The Equality Model must be part of New York’s toolkit of laws and policies to reform the criminal justice system and promote gender, racial, economic and immigration justice.

Gloria Steinem

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women

Covenant House

ECPAT-USA

Equality Now

Graham Windham

Mentari

National Organization for Women – New York City

New York Alliance Against the Legalization of Prostitution

New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition

Not On My Watch

Sanctuary for Families

DHS plan to deputize border agents to handle Credible Fear Interviews will harm refugees

Tasking Border Patrol agents with conducting credible fear interviews is a clear effort to fast-track the removal of vulnerable asylum seekers.

Lori Adams is the Director of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families.

The recent U.S. Department of Homeland Security decision, reported by President of the National Border Patrol Council Brandon Judd, to task Border Patrol agents with conducting credible fear interviews is a clear effort to fast-track the removal of vulnerable asylum seekers, many of whom are gender violence survivors, from the U.S.

Sanctuary for Families serves individuals and families who have suffered gender-based harm to find safety and rebuild their lives. Our refugee clients, including women who have survived gender-based violence in their homes and in their communities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community who have suffered violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have a right to seek asylum and to have a trained officer evaluate their claims.

These claims require an understanding of the country conditions that provide the context for that suffering, the failure of state protection for women and others in those countries, and an understanding of the evolving laws and policies impacting gender-based asylum cases. Credible fear interviews are the first step in the U.S. asylum process.  They are a matter of life and death.  And they should only be conducted by asylum officers who have received the training and have the time to recognize a refugee when they see one.

Section 235 of the Immigration and Nationality Act requires this. The “professional training in country conditions, asylum law, and interview techniques” that asylum officers receive is not provided to Border Patrol officers whose role is to monitor the border for weapons, drugs, and other threats to U.S. security. DHS should not divert the attention of Border Patrol agents away from their intended duties, and should not ask them to take on responsibilities that they were not hired or trained to do. That will almost certainly lead to failure to properly identify refugees at the border, and will increase the burden on the U.S. immigration courts to reconsider improperly denied applicants.

Instead, the U.S. should fund the creation of additional positions within the Asylum Division and ensure that the new asylum officers receive the requisite training in country conditions, asylum law, and interviewing techniques to properly evaluate the asylum claims of vulnerable refugees who fled to this country to seek protection.

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants and was founded as a safe haven for those who escaped persecution in their countries of origin. Not only are we bound by international law and our own domestic asylum laws to protect refugees who cross our borders, but providing that safety and protection is also inextricably bound to the ideals upon which this nation was founded.

The pilot program is reportedly scheduled to begin two weeks from now. Sanctuary for Families urges DHS to cancel this pilot program and leave the responsibility of conducting sensitive credible fear interviews with the asylum officers who are trained to conduct them.

To speak with Lori Adams, Director of the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families, contact LAK Public Relations.

On International Agunah Day, Sanctuary Stands with Jewish Orthodox Survivors

Learn about the plight of “chained women” and how you can support our work within the Jewish Orthodox Community.

On the eve of Purim, the Jewish Orthodox community observes Ta’anit Esther to commemorate the plea of Queen Esther – a Jewish woman who saved her people during their exile in the Persian Empire. Like many Jewish women today, Esther was trapped in a forced marriage to the king of Persia and spent years fearing her husband might kill her.

Today, Sanctuary joins advocates around the world to observe the International Day of the Agunah – a day marked yearly on the Fast of Esther to bring awareness to the plight of the modern-day agunah, or “chained woman” – and stands in solidarity with Jewish Orthodox women in New York and across the world who have suffered from get-refusal and are trapped in unwanted marriages.

According to Jewish law, a marriage can only be dissolved once the husband voluntarily grants a get, or religious divorce, to his wife – something many men refuse to do out of malice or to use as leverage when negotiating financial settlements and custody arrangements. Get-refusal is thus a form of domestic violence by which the husband asserts power and control to deny his wife the opportunity to separate and move on with her life. Orthodox Jewish women in these situations are called agunot, or chained women, for they are not allowed to remarry. For agunot, any new relationship they have is considered adultery, and their children will be considered illegitimate if conceived outside of marriage.

At Sanctuary, we recognize get-refusal as a form of gender violence that harms women, their children, and the wider Jewish Orthodox Community. In 2015, seeing that many women seeking help with civil and religious divorces had virtually nowhere to turn for help, we launched the Jewish Orthodox Matrimonial Project. In the years since, we have provided clinical and legal services, shelter, and economic empowerment to hundreds of Jewish Orthodox women and their children. Furthermore, we have actively engaged with rabbis, community leaders, and peer organizations, to build a network of advocates committed to raising awareness about domestic violence within the Jewish Orthodox community and protecting the rights and wellbeing of survivors.

Please consider demonstrating your solidarity this International Agunah Day by donating to Sanctuary’s Jewish Orthodox Matrimonial Project.

Voices from The Border

Sanctuary attorney Natali Soto writes about our legal team’s experience assisting asylum-seekers in Tijuana, Mexico, as the U.S. implemented new deterrence protocols.

Natali Soto is an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow and an attorney in Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project

In light of the current humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, my fellow Sanctuary immigration attorneys and I spent the first week of February working with asylum-seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. That same week, the U.S. rolled out its “Migrant Protection Protocol,” a policy which requires most asylum seekers who have passed their credible fear interviews to remain in Mexico, instead of the U.S., while they wait for a U.S. Immigration Judge to hear their asylum case.

Throughout our time in Tijuana, we met beautiful souls from all over the world – including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti, Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Russia – who had fled gender violence and other forms of persecution and violence in their home countries. These migrants had traveled thousands of miles by plane, bus, boat, and by foot, driven by hopes of finding asylum in the U.S.  They endured unimaginable hardships throughout their dangerous journeys only to find out, upon their arrival at the U.S.- Mexico border, that they must “wait in line” for weeks, even months, before being allowed to present their asylum claim to a U.S. Immigration Officer.

Listen to our attorneys describe the circumstances that have forced survivors to flee their home countries and seek refuge in the U.S.

The Current State of the Asylum-Seeking Process

This line-keeping system is a direct outcome of the Trump Administration’s “metering” policy, implemented in November 2018, which limits the number of asylum seekers allowed to enter the US each day. The system, however, is anything but official. Rather than being run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or any other U.S. or Mexican government agency, the line is managed by migrants who have assumed a leadership role among their peers. Newly-arrived asylum seekers must provide their names and nationalities to these migrant leaders in order to be assigned a number that corresponds to their place in line, supposedly based on the order in which they arrive.

Every day, CBP settles on a seemingly-indiscriminate number of people to allow into the U.S. and notifies Mexican officials who, in turn, pass this information to migrant leaders. The leaders then call out certain migrants’ numbers to indicate that those individuals are now allowed to cross into the U.S. to kickstart the asylum-claim process. Because the U.S. is inconsistent in the number of asylum seekers they’ll accept on any given day, these migrants must show up every morning, with their children and all of their belongings. If they are not present when their number is called, they will have to either plead to keep their spot in line or sign-up for a new number and wait several more weeks.

Migrants whose numbers have been called are lined up, put into vans, driven across the border, and kept in detention centers until their credible fear interviews, where a CBP officer will assess their fear of return to their home country. Unfortunately, even passage of these credible fear interviews does not guarantee temporary safety in the U.S. – under the Migrant Protection Protocol, asylum seekers must meet an even higher “reasonable” fear standard by demonstrating they fear persecution both in their home countries and in Mexico. Unfortunately, many vulnerable individuals who “have not had time to gather evidence that would show their credibility,” or whose claims include trauma-related inconsistencies or omissions, will fail to meet this higher standard and be sent back Mexico to await the adjudication of their asylum case.

Watch Lori Adams, Director of Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project, describe the situation at the U.S.-Mexico on the third day of implementation of the “Migrant Protection Protocol.” 

Our Work at the Border

Part of our duties as volunteer attorneys in Tijuana included delivering “Know Your Rights” presentations and meeting with migrants individually to provide them with legal counsel on their respective asylum cases. We also held last-minute credible fear interview prep sessions for migrants whose numbers had been called that morning. Although some migrants had anticipated the strenuous conditions they were about to face upon entering the U.S., others had reasonably assumed the worst of the asylum process was over. Had we not told them, the latter group would not have known that upon entering the U.S., they would be stripped of their extra layers of clothing and forced to await their credible fear interview in freezing holding cells for days at a time.

Listen to Sanctuary attorneys describe how they assisted migrants as they prepared to cross the border to deliver their credible-fear interviews — the first step for claiming asylum in the United States.

While conducting these last-minute interview prep sessions with migrants about to cross the border, my colleagues and I acted as “human shields” to provide privacy for those who needed to change into their warmest base layer. We also provided migrants with Sharpie markers so that they could write their loved ones’ phone numbers on their forearms, in the likely case that ICE would take away their possessions. We also encouraged parents to write their own names and dates of birth on the backs of their children’s shoulders in preparation for the tragic yet foreseeable case of ICE separating families upon crossing. Two young kids with whom I worked thought of these as “cool new tattoos” and showed them off to fellow migrants while their mother held back her tears fearing that these marks would not be enough to keep her children by her side.

Having to explain to families that they would most likely be separated at some point during the asylum claim process and that they would most likely be returned to Mexico while they await adjudication, was soul-crushing. When migrants learned about the new policies central to the current U.S. Immigration System, their hopefulness and excitement would immediately turn into anguish and disappointment, yet for many of them turning back was not an option. When you are fleeing for your life, not even a cruel system that is purposefully set in place to deter you from seeking asylum will dissuade you from pleading for safety.

Listen to our attorneys describe the anguish experienced by migrant families facing separation at the border.

My colleagues and I stayed in San Diego and crossed the border by foot twice a day since the people we were working with were in Tijuana. Throughout the week, I could not avoid thinking of the irony and privilege that underlined our back-and-forth crossings, during which we did as little as wave our U.S. passports to border officials. We were able to easily cross this arbitrary line only because we were born on the “right” side of it, while those who were born elsewhere and are fleeing for their lives were kept waiting for weeks for an opportunity to plead asylum in our country.

We hope that our experiences at the border can further shed light on what has become an undeniable reality – that our current immigration protocols are inhumane and deprive thousands of migrants of their basic human rights. These asylum seekers are fleeing domestic violence, gang violence, and government torture, among other types of unbearable persecution.  Sending them back to Mexico, even after they have passed their credible fear interviews, is a violation of due process. It also puts them at greater risk of harm, for many of them are still being followed by their persecutors and perpetrators.

As a nation founded under the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we must embrace those who are most vulnerable, not turn our backs on them.

Please consider donating to Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project to support our work with immigrant survivors of gender violence.

Pa’ lante, mi gente.