Tag Archives: human rights

Inside Trump’s Border Crackdown on Women and Kids

Mother Jones

Despite President Donald Trump’s dire warnings of “bad hombres” and drugs flooding into the United States from Mexico, the most urgent issue along the border has been the influx of Central American families and unaccompanied children, many of whom are fleeing gang-fueled violence in their home countries. And the latest statistics from the border show that one of the main goals of the White House’s immigration crackdown is being realized: targeting and deterring these asylum seekers from heading to the United States in the first place.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released new data on the number of migrants stopped at the US-Mexico border in February. Customs and Border Protection caught 18,762 people trying to enter the country, a 40 percent drop from January and the lowest monthly total since at least 2000 (the earliest year for which there are statistics). Of those migrants, just 27 percent were unaccompanied children or family groups, typically women traveling with kids—a huge dropoff from the last three months of 2016, when they made up 48 percent of apprehensions at the border.

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The administration was quick to celebrate the numbers. In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly crowed, “The early results show that enforcement matters, deterrence matters, and that comprehensive immigration enforcement can make an impact.” But immigration advocates caution that Trump’s border enforcement ramp-up—like earlier attempts by the Obama administration to stem the flow of Central American migrants—could be particularly devastating for thousands of women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras hoping to claim asylum in the United States.

“I think what we’ve seen over the past three years is that you can’t enforce away a refugee crisis,” says Jen Podkul, the director of policy at Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a legal aid nonprofit for unaccompanied child migrants and refugees. “Unfortunately, these executive orders and memos are going to push everybody underground.”

Katharina Obser, a senior program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), says she’s interviewed countless women in family detention over the past few years. “When we ask them, ‘Knowing what you know and given what’s happened, would you make the decision to leave again?’ The answer is almost always, ‘Yes, I had no other choice…’ There continues to be a lack of recognition that these are asylum seekers who are fleeing very real harm and who should have access to a fair and just immigration system.”

Here are seven ways that the White House has gone about squeezing Central American refugees:

1. Shutting down a safe path for kids

In September 2014, after the huge numbers of Central Americans at the southern border became national news, the Obama administration approved a plan to allow a select group of kids from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras apply for refugee status from within their home countries. The initiative was meant to keep the most vulnerable people from embarking on the dangerous journey north. Though the Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program was slow to get off the ground, the New York Times reported that 11,000-plus people have applied to the program, with a little more than 2,400 gaining admittance by late February—including 316 during Trump’s first month in office.

Trump’s revised travel ban, however, put the Central American Minors program on ice. In his March 6 executive order, the president suspended all refugee admissions for four months and cut the number of refugees the United States will admit annually to 50,000, down from 110,000 under Obama. And while a federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order on the ban, the CAM program’s future remains cloudy. In his February executive order on border security, Trump pointed a finger at “the abuse of parole and asylum provisions” that can allow immigrants without valid asylum claims into the United States.

2. Turning away asylum seekers at the border

In mid-January, eight immigrant rights organizations sent a complaint to DHS claiming that Border Patrol agents were turning away immigrants seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border. Under federal and international law, the United States must screen people asking for asylum to see if they have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries. If they do, they can get a full hearing in front of an immigration judge. (If they don’t, they can be summarily deported.) According to the complaint, Border Patrol agents in Texas and California had told migrants that they weren’t accepting more people and wouldn’t allow them to meet with asylum officers to file claims.

The incidents mentioned in the complaint began last summer. In one case, a Mexican police officer in a wheelchair was allegedly denied entry several times near San Diego, despite claiming he had been targeted and beaten by a drug cartel. Advocates say the situation could become untenable. “These northern Mexican border towns are so dangerous as it is,” Podkul says. “If there are just vulnerable migrants sitting around, they’re just waiting for something to happen to them.”

3. Threatening to separate moms and children

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the Trump administration was considering separating migrant mothers from their children upon entry into the United States. Instead of detaining them together, or letting them go while they await a hearing in immigration court, federal agents could split them up—sending moms to detention and kids to government-run shelters.

Following the border crisis in 2014, women traveling with children were detained in special family detention centers that were criticized by attorneys and immigrant rights groups for their poor conditions. Last December, around 400 women and children were released from family detention facilities in Texas after a judge denied the centers the necessary state licenses for detaining kids. Separating moms from their children could get around the problem of holding kids in substandard centers and needing to build more facilities to accommodate families.

In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on March 7, DHS Secretary Kelly confirmed the Reuters report: “Yes, I am considering it, in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network.” Kelly later said he thought parents who brought their children across the border are manipulating the system “because they know up till this point we will keep the families together.” “As this word gets out that we’re considering it and maybe we’ll implement it,” he said, “that will add again to this factor of people not coming.”

4. Making asylum screenings more difficult

Refugees who do manage to meet with an asylum officer may now face a tougher screening than they would have in the recent past. In mid-February, DHS updated the lesson plans it uses to train asylum officers on handling “credible-fear” interviews. According to the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit group that provides legal services for women and girls fleeing gender-based violence, the changes include increasing the burden of proof on asylum seekers at a very early stage in the process—when many are particularly vulnerable and often do not have a lawyer.

The lesson plans have also dropped language emphasizing the low threshold for passing the credible-fear interview. For example, earlier lesson plans included passages reminding officers that when there was a reasonable doubt regarding an asylum seeker’s fear of persecution in her home country, “the applicant likely merits” a full hearing before a judge. “The credible-fear process was always intended to be an intentionally low threshold,” the WRC’s Obser says. “It was not meant to be a full-blown asylum hearing.”

5. Detaining asylum seekers awaiting their day in court

The feds used to have several options for dealing with asylum seekers who have passed their credible-fear interviews. They could release them on a written promise to appear at an immigration hearing, they could let them go with an ankle monitor, or they could detain them. Over the last several years, many immigrant families with pending asylum claims were set free, a policy that immigration hardliners have derisively called “catch and release.” During his campaign, Trump promised to end this practice, and his executive order on border security called for detaining every immigrant caught at the border.

To that end, ICE has suggested doubling the number of immigrants it can detain on a daily basis to 80,000. With detention facilities already near capacity, that could mean working with local governments to reopen empty state prisons or even renting beds in local jails. Meanwhile, a February memo from DHS Secretary Kelly says that asylum seekers may be released if they pass their credible-fear interviews and prove to ICE who they are and that they’re not a security risk. If not, they face prolonged detention—and, because it’s especially hard for them to find lawyers and make their cases while held by ICE, likely deportation.

6. Getting tough on unaccompanied kids

According to Kelly’s memo, some 155,000 unaccompanied child migrants have been apprehended at the border in the past three years. Those kids pass through shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services and are often then reunited with relatives living in the United States. Kelly wrote that 60 percent of them have been placed in the care of one or more undocumented parents. The memo suggests that the government will be taking a closer look at these cases and reclassifying unaccompanied kids as simply undocumented immigrants—and deporting them.

KIND’s Podkul argues this will simply keep parents from collecting their children from government shelters, which could put kids in precarious situations—and could keep the federal government from being able to know where kids are and make sure they’re living in safe environments. “You’re either going to have kids lingering in detention,” she says, “or you’re going to have a stranger or a family friend or a neighbor who comes forward to get the kid.”

7. Charging parents with human trafficking

Many of the unaccompanied children reuniting with their families in the United States arrive at the border with the help of smugglers hired by their parents or relatives. “Regardless of the desires for family reunion, or conditions in other countries,” Kelly wrote in his memo, “the smuggling or trafficking of alien children is intolerable.” To that end, Kelly states that anyone who contributes “directly or indirectly” to the smuggling of a child could face deportation or criminal prosecution.

To advocates, this move seems especially punitive. “No person is more concerned about the safety of a child than a parent,” Podkul says. “They’re doing the only thing they know how to do to save their child’s life. By going after them, that’s not going to stop any sort of problem. It’s not going to stop the problem in the home country. It’s not going to stop kids from needing to flee.”

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Inside Trump’s Border Crackdown on Women and Kids

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This Sociologist Spent Five Years on LA’s Hyper-Policed Skid Row. Here’s What He Learned.

Mother Jones

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University of Chicago sociologist Forrest Stuart spent five years hanging out on Los Angeles’s grittiest streets for his new book, Down, Out and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row. (For a taste, read this short excerpt.) “I figured this was ground zero for trying to start over, for testing the American bootstraps story, and I wanted to see if and how it could work,” Stuart explains. I spoke with the young assistant professor about the things he learned amid the street people and cops.

Forrest Stuart

Mother Jones: Why did you choose Skid Row?

Forrest Stuart: I had worked with prisoner advocacy groups and in minimum-security prisons. I’d meet guys who would be released at 5 a.m. with no food, no nothing. If I were a guy who needed food or an addict who hadn’t had any treatment in prison, I would do whatever I had to do to survive, and maybe that would mean something illegal. So how do you start again? I had heard that the 50 blocks of its Skid Row was the place with the most parolees in the country, a neighborhood that is simultaneously one of the poorest and most aggressively policed locations in America. Shuttles run between Skid Row and LA’s Central Jail. I started by sitting in the courtyards, standing on the corners, hoping that people would strike up conversations. I started selling loose cigarettes, and people finally began talking to me.

MJ: What struck you during your time on the streets that might be useful to policymakers?

FS: Right away I started seeing how the police, in part just because of their numbers in Skid Row, were creating a situation I’d never seen before. Just as a guy was starting to get on his feet—for example, he had finally secured a bed at a shelter—some small infraction would cut him back.

It could be as little as getting a single ticket for loitering. For people living on dollars at day, to suddenly have to pay $150 for a sidewalk ticket is huge! If they don’t pay, they can be arrested. Not only do they have to spend time in jail, they usually lose their bed at the shelter or their room in low-rent apartments. In a lot of shelters or apartments, if someone doesn’t show up at the end of the day, the managers give away all their things. So now they’d be right back to square one. Broke, homeless, just trying to get a roof over their head. The bootstraps were cut.

For someone like you or me, you get a ticket, you pay it, it sucks. That ticket can mean we can’t have a drink tonight, or we have to cut back at the grocery store. Our interactions with police and the criminal justice system are generally just a nuisance. But once you go below a certain socioeconomic status, these seemingly trivial, mundane, momentary interactions with the police restructure everything.

The other really important complication is that some of the places that people need most—like a soup kitchen or homeless shelter—become really risky, because that’s where the police are, giving tickets and making arrests for small things like blocking the sidewalk. So people start to actively avoid those places. If the police are stopping and questioning you about, say, loitering, or not having ID, or for talking to a stranger (who happens to be the person handing out sandwiches) and you get hauled off to the station, you start to change your behavior for the worse. You start to avoid or refuse services.

MJ: So we’ve essentially made poverty illegal, and addiction, too—if you’re poor.

FS: We can can think about inequality as income and wealth. But there are a whole host of other things that you don’t see unless you are standing there watching it for a long time. When cities use misdemeanor arrests in low-income communities as a corrective, what they don’t understand is that these policies constrict every decision that someone with so few options has to make.

When I step out of my house, I think about what I might be teaching that day or what I’m going to have for dinner. In Skid Row most of the residents’ cognitive energy is directed to two things: “How do I stay off the cops’ radar” and “How do I stay safe—how do I avoid becoming a victim today?” Essentially, what people have to think about all the time is, how do I prove to police that I’m not a bad person? How can I be sure I don’t look like an addict? (Don’t pick at your clothes, don’t pick at your skin, don’t scratch your head.) It’s an incredible amount for a person to take in. It makes it really hard to concentrate on everyday things—like being a good employee if you do have a job, or pulling off a job interview.

Those of us in the middle class aren’t sitting on the sidewalk, because we don’t have to, or we have a job, or a home to go to. Plus, even if most of us did sit down on the sidewalk, or walk down the street picking at our clothes, we aren’t going to get that ticket. Those policies amount to a double criminalization of poverty.

MJ: What assumption do most people have that should be corrected?

FS: That everyone, or at least the majority of the people, have something wrong with them. Something that the rest of us don’t have—mental health problems, addiction, poor choices, work ethic. But that isn’t true. I’m 100 percent confident that if some of the stuff that happened to them had happened to me, my family or my students or my greater community could help me. There is very likely no way I’m going to end up on Skid Row, because I have so many safety nets. But take away your family and your supportive networks, and we are all one step away.

MJ: The mayor of LA says he’s serious about change. Do you agree?

FS: Mayor Eric Garcetti says “we are going to spend money” yet they don’t really have the money. That said, he has publicly committed to using the Housing First model. That should mean the administration increases transitional and permanent supportive housing. Getting people into homes has shown to work better than anything else so far. And it’s a lot better than the current system, which is to rely heavily on emergency shelters that have been turned into rehabilitation centers. If he follows through, that is a sign Garcetti might be serious.

But overall I’m scared and pessimistic because the city’s history, and Garcetti’s history, shows that whenever they increase funding for social services, they tie it to more-aggressive policing. When that happens, we start hearing city official and police officers saying things like, “There’s no excuse for you to be here, homeless, jobless, because all of you can walk across the street for social service” or “There’s something wrong with you” or “You are criminally negligent.” There are a whole lot of reasons why people don’t go into services. A lot of people see services and police as one and the same.

We need to stop treating homelessness as a policing and criminal-justice problem. We need to let the police do other stuff, and entrust social workers and helpers to address the issues. These are jobs cops don’t want to do. They don’t want to be walking around in piss and shit and dealing with mentally ill people.

MJ: In your book excerpt that accompanies this interview, you write about Jackson and Leticia, a couple who found themselves on Skid Row and addicted to drugs after LA’s aerospace industry collapsed. Have you seen them since?

FS: Last time I saw Jackson was two years ago. He was in the soup kitchen. He told me that the cops started cracking down hard on the vendors. In the hope of avoiding the the cops, the vendors had started to focus on only selling DVDs rather than an assortment of items. They amassed duffel bags full of films, thinking that it would make their sidewalk shops more discrete. But having more than 100 bootlegged DVDs means more fines and jail time. So the vendors started going away for longer periods. Almost overnight, the cops wiped out another way poor people were making ends meet. Despite cycling through jail again, Jackson had been able to stay relatively clean. Leticia was still on drugs, but the two had managed to start the application process for SSI and transitional housing. But I’m still worried for Jackson. He’s got a long, uphill climb ahead of him.

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This Sociologist Spent Five Years on LA’s Hyper-Policed Skid Row. Here’s What He Learned.

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Are Brazilian Cops Ready for the Olympics?

Mother Jones

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The Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro has promised to beef up public security ahead of the Olympics next month. But those efforts are complicated by a staggering rate of unlawful police killings, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, that has fostered deep divisions between law enforcement and the communities it serves.

Since 2006, Rio’s police have killed at least 8,021 people, including 645 people last year, according to the 109-page report, released Thursday. In the city of Rio alone, police killings accounted for a whopping 20 percent of all homicides last year. And while Human Rights Watch says many of these officer-involved killings were likely justified uses of force, since cops patrolling Rio often come up against heavily armed gangs and need to protect themselves, the advocacy group found ample evidence to suggest that some were “extrajudicial killings.”

Human Rights Watch found that for every officer killed on duty in Rio de Janeiro last year, 24.8 civilians were slain by the police—three times the rate in the United States.

In at least 64 cases since 2006, the Brazilian police have allegedly tried to cover up unlawful killings, Human Rights Watch found, citing interviews with officers, victims’ families, prosecutors, and others. The report details incidents where cops planted evidence, guns, or drugs on shooting victims; removed clothes from dead bodies, hoping to discard bullet fragments that could identify the shooter; and even delivered the corpse of someone they’d shot and killed to a hospital, claiming they were trying to “rescue” the victim. Of 32 “rescues” that Human Rights Watch examined, the victim was dead on arrival at the hospital in at least 27 cases. “While these false ‘rescues’ give the appearance of legitimate effort by officers to help victims, in reality they destroy crime scene evidence and hinder forensic evidence,” the advocacy group wrote.

Most of the officers involved have never been brought to court. There were 3,441 recorded police killings between 2010 and 2015, but the state attorney general’s office pursued charges in just four cases, Human Rights Watch found. Rio’s attorney general, Marfan Martins Vieira, said his office had only been able to prosecute a small number of officers because official investigations of such killings are typically of “poor quality,” even though he knows of killings where he believes cops faked a shootout to make it look like they acted in self-defense.

This isn’t the first time the issue has come up just before Brazil prepares to take center stage. Nine years ago, weeks before the Pan-American Games opened in Rio, authorities converged on the Complexo do Alemao favela as part of a series of sweeps against drug operations in the city’s slums. In an ensuing shootout, 19 civilians were killed. Five of the victims that day were shot at point-blank range. Nine others were shot in the back. Human Rights Watch found that no officer was ever held accountable for the 2007 incident, and a federal commission later determined that several deaths “were the result of a procedure of summary and arbitrary execution.” At the time, then-State Security Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame told NPR the operation was not intended to be violent but had turned bloody after a confrontation with suspected drug traffickers. “We do not go to these regions looking for or producing violence,” he said. “We were met brutally with bullets and potent arms.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro has bolstered security around the games’ venues to 85,000 officers, thanks to some emergency funds. But high-profile incidents continue to trouble the city. Athletes have been mugged and human remains have washed up on a beach near the volleyball arena. Robert Muggah, a security expert at the Igarapé Institute in Rio, recently noted a 15 percent increase in homicides during the first four months of this year compared with same period in 2015. The city’s mayor has blamed the state, which he said was “completely failing at its work of policing and taking care of people.”

Maria Laura Canineu, the Brazil director at Human Rights Watch, said police brutality has made cops feel less safe. It’s dangerous to patrol Rio’s slums—attacks by gang members are common—and criminals are more likely to fight back if they think their lives are at risk, the advocacy group wrote in its report. Some officers told Human Rights Watch that they’d witnessed unlawful police killings but didn’t report anything because they feared potential retaliation from their colleagues. “Unlawful killings turn communities against the police and undermine security for all,” Canineu said in a statement. “You can’t expect community policing to work when police are executing members of the communities they are supposed to protect. And you can’t expect honest cops to perform well when they live in constant fear—not only of gang members, but also of their fellow officers.”

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Are Brazilian Cops Ready for the Olympics?

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The Real Story of the Syrian Family Who Donald Trump Said Might Be Terrorists

Mother Jones

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Matt Chase

The couple who had panicked the nation’s right-wing politicians and pundits sits on a couch in a spartan ground-level apartment on the outskirts of San Bernardino, California. Thirty-two-year-old Samer is in a blue sweatshirt and jeans, lounging next to his wife, Sara. He has a round face and relaxed eyes; she is more angular, her eyes more direct. They’re both wearing ankle monitors. Ever since they were released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention two months earlier, they’ve kept a low profile. It took me weeks to contact them, and now they’ve agreed to tell their story. But they have some caveats: no real names, not too many details. They don’t want to stir up any more trouble than they’ve already been through.

Eight months before I met them, they were in Syria, on the phone with a smuggler. ISIS fighters were on the fringes of their small Christian village, firing mortars into it. Samer and Sara knew if the village fell there was a good chance they’d be abused or executed. There was no power, no work, and the price of food was punishing. Part of their home was blown up. Their little boys, two and five years old, were “afraid all the time,” Sara recalls. They almost never ventured outdoors. Of Syria, Samer says, “It is not a life.” So they decided to seek a new one—in America, where they hoped to join Samer’s parents and sister, who live in California.

The smuggler told them he could help, in exchange for everything they had—a valuable tract of land, the remains of their home, and all its contents. The smuggler’s network stretched across the globe, and he arranged to get them to Lebanon, then Turkey, where they waited three months before being supplied with expertly forged European passports—they won’t say which nationality—and plane tickets to Brazil. From there, they traveled north. The smuggler told them where to go, whom to meet, when to take a car, and when to fly. The passports worked at every checkpoint, border, and airport.

On November 17, Samer, Sara, and their two little boys walked across the Mexican border at Laredo, Texas, and turned themselves in to American immigration officials. Samer remembers, “I was so happy. I finally arrived here to have a safe life, a good life for my children.”

They didn’t realize they were stepping into a firestorm of anti-refugee hysteria. Four days before their arrival, ISIS-backed terrorists had attacked in Paris. After Samer and Sara entered the United States, the conservative website Breitbart proclaimed—falsely—that they and another Syrian family who had crossed with them were “illegal aliens” who had been “caught” sneaking into the country. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted a link to the story. Ben Carson said their arrival could be a sign that “our worst nightmare may be unfolding before our eyes.” Trump tweeted that they might be terrorists: “ISIS maybe? I told you so. we need a big & beautiful wall!” In the days that followed, more than 30 governors said they did not want Syrian refugees settling in their states.

Almost immediately after requesting asylum, Sara and the boys were put in one ICE detention center, Samer in another. They went through the extensive asylum interview process and were determined to have “credible fears of persecution or torture” in Syria. Within two weeks they were approved for release. ICE officials told Samer’s family in California to buy airline tickets for them. But the day before they were set to depart, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook slaughtered 14 people in San Bernardino. ICE told Samer’s family to cancel the flights to California, and Samer and Sara were denied parole. The only explanation was a vague declaration of “law enforcement interests.”

During their weeks of detention, Samer was allowed to speak to Sara only once on the phone. The boys cried every night, asking Sara where their father was. As Christmas approached, the children had been held for nearly 40 days, despite a mandate that most migrant kids should be released after three to five days. “The look on their face is a look of terror,” their lawyer, Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, told me after visiting Sara at the time. “The look and the panic of a person pinned down on a hospital gurney.”

“I definitely thought America would accept me,” Samer told the Guardian. “If I had known that it was so terrible here I wouldn’t have brought my family.” On Christmas Eve, the family was finally released, reunited, and put on a flight to California.

That’s where I meet them two months later, in the warm and tidy apartment where Samer’s parents live. A cross hangs above the kitchen doorway. We drink tea in the living room as Samer and Sara lay out the terms for sharing their story. They’re wary: They don’t want to be back in the headlines, and they worry more press could endanger Sara’s mother and sister, still trapped in Syria. “They didn’t have a chance to leave,” she says. ISIS is still on the outskirts of their village.

They talk about life before the war, of their town—a small community speckled with trees and fields of crops. Sara doesn’t want to dwell on how the war has changed it. “The way the village looks is not important,” she says. “It is like all of Syria,” a landscape of broken concrete and twisted rebar.

Their troubles aren’t over. The asylum process, as Ryan puts it, is “designed so that people fall into the cracks, lose their cases on a technicality that would drive any sports fan nuts.”

But for now, Samer and Sara are piecing together a normal life. “My son started school,” she says, beaming. “Preschool. Just five years old, but he is a big boy. He is starting to learn English.” The boys, who have been playing in the living room, disappear into the kitchen and return proudly carrying potted flowers. “They bought this flower for their grandma,” Sara explains. Next they walk out holding a bag of peanut M&Ms with pleading eyes, grinning and squirming. They can play outside now. But not today. “It’s too windy!” Sara says with a laugh.

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The Real Story of the Syrian Family Who Donald Trump Said Might Be Terrorists

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He Killed Two FBI Agents. Or He Was Framed. After 40 Years, Will Obama Free Leonard Peltier?

Mother Jones

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Leonard Peltier, a member of the Lakota tribe who was convicted of murdering two FBI agents in 1977, has spent 40 of his 71 years in federal prison. During that time, some have come to view him as an international symbol of the mistreatment of Native Americans by the US criminal justice system; others see him as the murderer of two FBI agents who should continue to pay his debt to society. Recently a group of prominent lawyers—backed by world leaders, civil rights activists, and several members of the US Congress—have renewed efforts to win his freedom by filing a formal appeal for clemency to the Department of Justice and requesting that President Barack Obama intervene on Peltier’s behalf.

In February, Martin Garbus, a well-known New York City trial lawyer and the lead attorney of the group, joined by former US Attorney Cynthia Dunne and attorney Carl S. Nadler, wrote a five-page letter to Obama urging him to grant Peltier clemency. “The time has come for the interests of the law enforcement community to be balanced against principles of fundamental fairness, reconciliation, and healing,” they contended.

They also submitted a 44-page petition for clemency to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney on behalf of Peltier, who suffers from various medical conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and a heart condition. All of this, the petition notes, impairs “his ability to walk, to see, and to conduct normal life activities…He is ill-equipped to cope with life in the maximum security prisons in which he has been jailed for many years.” The petition includes more than two dozen letters from supporters including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, several Native American tribes, and Amnesty International.

“Mr. Peltier has exhausted all appeals and is next eligible to apply for parole in 2024, in the unlikely event that he lives that long,” the letter to Obama states. “The Parole Commission has yielded to the objections of the FBI and DOJ in denying Mr. Peltier’s applications for parole at every turn. Effectively, this Petition represents the last chance in Mr. Peltier’s lifetime for the Government to take curative and/or reconciliatory action.”

Peltier’s case has long been a flash point in the strained relations between federal law enforcement and Native Americans. The killings occurred on the the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, about 18 miles from Wounded Knee, where 300 Sioux were massacred by the US military in 1890.

In 1973, about 200 Sioux, led by members of the American Indian Movement, occupied Wounded Knee for 71 days to protest injustices against Native Americans and what they perceived as the corrupt leadership of the reservation’s president. By the end of the standoff, two Native Americans had been killed, 12 were wounded, and 12 were “missing” but suspected of having been killed by tribal leadership, according to Peltier’s petition.

The three years after the Wounded Knee occupation became known within Native American circles as the “Reign of Terror,” a period during which dozens of Native Americans were murdered and hundreds were assaulted by a private militia that was aligned with Oglala Lakota Souix chairman Dick Wilson and known as the “GOON squad.” Two years after that, with the Reign of Terror fresh on the minds of everyone in the area, the deadly shootout with the FBI agents occurred.

Many of the facts about the deaths of FBI agents Jack Williams and Robert Coler are disputed. The FBI says the agents were on the reservation to arrest a different man wanted for robbery and that they were not looking for Peltier, who was wanted on a separate warrant related to an alleged attempted murder of an off-duty police officer in Milwaukee. When the agents came to the reservation that day, according to the FBI, they encountered a vehicle carrying Peltier and found themselves under fire. Williams and Coler each died as a result of point-blank shots to the head.

Peltier’s version of the story is presented in detail in his petition. He maintains that after the FBI agents came on to the private property, “I heard shooting, grabbed my rifle, and ran towards a residence where there were women and children, but quickly ran in another direction because my presence had attracted additional gunfire to the area.” He says the area was surrounded by more than 100 FBI agents, SWAT team members, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, and members of the GOON squad.

“Along with many other American Indians who were present that day, I fired shots in the direction of men whom I later learned were federal agents,” Peltier notes in the petition. “At the end of extended gunfire, three men lay dead: Special Agents Jack R. Williams and Robert A. Coler, and American Indian Joe Stuntz.”

Peltier says he fled the area, eventually ending up in Canada because he thought he wouldn’t get a fair trial in the United States. Using affidavits from a woman later determined to have been either coerced or incompetent, the US government had Peltier sent back to the United States in February 1976 to stand trial. Two other Native Americans, Robert Robideau and Darrelle Dean Butler, were arrested for the deaths of the two FBI agents, but only Peltier was convicted in a trial that contained a number of irregularities, including sworn affidavits from witnesses who said they’d been coerced by the FBI. While Robideau and Butler were acquitted in 1976, Peltier was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in June 1977.

Peltier and his supporters have pointed out the many problems with his trial, highlighting the fact that the government eventually admitted it did not know with certainty who had fired the point-blank shots that killed the FBI agents. Nevertheless, the latest petition for clemency flatly states that Peltier is not trying to re-litigate the case: “The finality of my conviction should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the means that were employed by the government to achieve the result” (emphasis in original).

Over the years, prominent figures such as Nelson Mandela, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, and Robert Redford have called for Peltier’s release.

Garbus tells Mother Jones that this is Peltier’s second formal petition for clemency. The first, submitted in 2000 during the Clinton administration, was likely undermined by a protest of 500 active and retired FBI agents who marched in front of the White House after the petition was delivered. Garbus has now reached out to several members of Congress, including Reps. John Lewis and Barbara Lee and Sen. Patrick Leahy, to advance Peltier’s cause.

“This is a different application than the one before Clinton,” says Garbus. “We hope that we will not see the same kind of opposition at this point from these FBI families, given the passage of years, given his sickness, and given his very clear expression of remorse.”

Garbus says he has not heard from any White House officials. A White House spokesperson and the FBI both declined to comment on the petition. The Office of the Pardon Attorney—the office within the Justice Department that handles requests for pardons and clemency—also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Garbus says he’s trying to help Peltier for one simple reason: “Forty years is enough for a wrongful conviction.”

Read the letter to Obama and Peltier’s latest petition below:

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He Killed Two FBI Agents. Or He Was Framed. After 40 Years, Will Obama Free Leonard Peltier?

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