Trump attorney general’s ruling expands indefinite detention for asylum seekers

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, U.S. April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

By Mica Rosenberg and Kristina Cooke

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The U.S. Attorney General on Tuesday struck down a decision that had allowed some asylum seekers to ask for bond in front of an immigration judge, in a ruling that expands indefinite detention for some migrants who must wait months or years for their cases to be heard.

The first immigration court ruling from President Donald Trump’s newly appointed Attorney General William Barr is in keeping with the administration’s moves to clamp down on the asylum process as tens of thousands of mostly Central Americans cross into the United States asking for refuge. U.S. immigration courts are overseen by the Justice Department and the Attorney General can rule in cases to set legal precedent.

Barr’s ruling is the latest instance of the Trump administration taking a hard line on immigration. This year the administration implemented a policy to return some asylum seekers to Mexico while their cases work their way through backlogged courts, a policy which has been challenged with a lawsuit.

Several top officials at the Department of Homeland Security were forced out this month over Trump’s frustrations with an influx of migrants seeking refuge at the U.S. southern border.

Barr’s decision applies to migrants who crossed illegally into the United States.

Typically, those migrants are placed in “expedited removal” proceedings – a faster form of deportation reserved for people who illegally entered the country within the last two weeks and are detained within 100 miles (160 km) of a land border. Migrants who present themselves at ports of entry and ask for asylum are not eligible for bond.

But before Barr’s ruling, those who had crossed the border between official entry points and asked for asylum were eligible for bond, once they had proven to asylum officers they had a credible fear of persecution.

“I conclude that such aliens remain ineligible for bond, whether they are arriving at the border or are apprehended in the United States,” Barr wrote.

Barr said such people can be held in immigration detention until their cases conclude, or if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decides to release them by granting them “parole.”DHS has the discretion to parole people who are not eligible for bond and frequently does so due to insufficient detention space or other humanitarian reasons.

Barr said he was delaying the effective date by 90 days “so that DHS may conduct the necessary operational planning for additional detention and parole decisions.”

The decision’s full impact is not yet clear, because it will in large part depend on DHS’ ability to expand detention,” said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.

“The number of asylum seekers who will remain in potentially indefinite detention pending disposition of their cases will be almost entirely a question of DHS’s detention capacity, and not whether the individual circumstances of individual cases warrant release or detention,” Vladeck said.

DHS officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision. The agency had written in a brief in the case arguing that eliminating bond hearings for the asylum seekers would have “an immediate and significant impact on…detention operations.”

In early March, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DHS agency responsible for detaining and deporting immigrants in the country illegally, said the average daily population of immigrants in detention topped 46,000 for the 2019 fiscal year, the highest level since the agency was created in 2003. Last year, Reuters reported that ICE had
“modified a tool officers have been using since 2013 when deciding whether an immigrant should be detained or released on bond, making the process more restrictive.”

The decision will have no impact on unaccompanied migrant children, who are exempt from expedited removal. Most families are also paroled because of a lack of facilities to hold parents and children together. 

Michael Tan, from the American Civil Liberties Union, said the rights group intended to sue the Trump administration over the decision, and immigrant advocates decried the decision.

Barr’s decision came after former Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to review the case in October. Sessions resigned from his position in November, leaving the case to Barr to decide.

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Inspired by migrant caravans, new wave of Cubans seek U.S. asylum

Cuban migrants, waiting for their appointment to request asylum in the U.S., receive food at a church being used as a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, April 6, 2019. Picture taken April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Julia Love

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) – Isel Rojas put his dream of leaving Cuba on hold when the United States ended a generous immigration policy for island residents. But watching coverage of migrant caravans heading from Central America toward the United States on Cuban television last year, he began to see a new path.

One morning in January, he woke up and told his wife he was finally ready. Fifteen days later, he was gone.

“If they can do it, why can’t we?” said Rojas, a 48-year-old who worked in agriculture in the eastern city of Holguin, recalling the images of young men and families traveling en masse to the Mexico-U.S. border.

Rojas is now waiting to apply for U.S. asylum in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, which has become a magnet for Cuban migrants.

Political repression and bleak economic prospects remain the primary reasons cited by Cubans for migrating from the Communist-ruled island, a Cold War foe of the United States. But some in Ciudad Juarez say news of the caravans also motivated them, giving them the impression the United States was accepting migrants.

Since early last year, the caravans have been a frequent target of U.S. President Donald Trump as he advocates for stricter immigration policies. Critics say the president’s statements about the caravans, including a series of angry tweets, have ironically enlarged the groups and publicized asylum as a possible avenue to legal status.

“The person who created the media coverage and who drove the issue of the caravans has been President Trump,” Tonatiuh Guillen, the head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, said on local radio last week.

The addition of Cubans to those flows is adding to the pressure on already overwhelmed shelters and border authorities in Mexico and the United States. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to authorities in March, the White House said on Friday, calling it the highest number in a decade. Trump has threatened a border shutdown or tariffs on Mexico in retaliation.

What’s more, some say Trump’s harder line on Cuban relations has contributed to a sense of gloom on the economically weak and tightly controlled island.

The White House and the Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mexico’s migration institute declined to comment.

‘TREATED LIKE EVERYONE ELSE’

Like Rojas, many Cubans who reached northern Mexico in recent months ultimately traveled with a smaller group, and caravans were not a factor for all who left. But a caravan of 2,600 migrants currently contained by authorities in southern Mexico, the largest this year, includes dozens from the island. Mexican immigration officials said they flew some 60 Cubans home on Friday.

In Ciudad Juarez, Cubans represent 75 to 80 percent of some 3,600 migrants in town, said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the state commission for population. The wait to apply for asylum is about two months, shelter directors say.

The bottleneck highlights a new reality: Cubans do not enjoy the same advantages they once did in the U.S. immigration system.

“For the first time this year, Cubans are being treated like everyone else,” said Wilfredo Allen, a Miami-based lawyer who works with Cuban migrants. “The special door for the Cubans has already closed.”

In 2017, U.S. President Barack Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil to stay but returned any intercepted at sea, triggering a decline in immigration from the island.

In the first five months of fiscal-year 2019, 6,289 Cubans turned up at ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border without papers. That number is on track to nearly double the total for the whole of fiscal-year 2018, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

While Cubans generally face slightly better chances of receiving asylum than Central Americans because their tales of political persecution are often more clear-cut, success is anything but assured, Allen said.

Allen estimates only 20 to 30 percent of his Cuban clients will win their cases.

That message has not reached those in Ciudad Juarez, many of whom sold their vehicles, businesses or homes to finance the trip. Some have literally bet the farm.

“They say that we have priority, that (the United States) will accept us in one form or another,” said Rojas, who sold almost half his cattle. “They always accept us.”

A NEW ROUTE

Cubans lucky enough to get a U.S. visa, to visit family for example, can fly there legally and are eligible to apply for residency after a year in the United States. For most though, reaching the United States is no easy feat.

Even before “wet foot, dry foot” ended, Cubans began forging new routes, flying into countries in Central and South America with loose visa requirements and then heading north. Only a few countries, such as Guyana, do not require visas for Cubans.

Last year, Panama made it easier for Cubans to come to the country to shop, creating another opening for some from the island to reach Central America.

Arasay Sanchez, 33, said she was browsing the internet in a park one day when she saw a story about the caravans.

After selling her house and most of her belongings, Sanchez flew into Panama on Jan. 25, she said.

She relied on a seven-page guide she inherited from Cubans who had traveled to the United States, detailing everything from where to sleep to where to buy a phone. On the trail, it was among her most valuable possessions – she carried it in her clothes.

The route ended in Ciudad Juarez, regarded by many Cubans as a safer and more orderly place to seek asylum than other more crowded Mexican border crossings, despite its reputation as one of the world’s most violent cities. Ciudad Juarez, just south of El Paso, Texas, received relatively few asylum seekers until late last year.

Many are dismayed by the long wait they find, shelter directors say, and they are increasingly concerned about safety after reports of Cubans going missing in Mexico. Few leave the shelters, 10 migrants said in interviews.

Sanchez and her partner arrived in Ciudad Juarez in late February, moving from shelter to shelter and struggling with spicy Mexican food.

“Even the candy” has chile, she said, clutching the extra folds of fabric in her jeans to show she had lost weight.

Experts do not expect the flow of Cuban migrants to ebb anytime soon. Obama made it easier for Americans to travel to the island, generating new business. But that money dried up after Trump tightened the rules, said Pedro Freyre, a lawyer who studies the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

What is more, a gradual opening of the island’s private sector triggered a backlash from conservatives, creating headaches for small businesses, Freyre said.

Reaching the United States would end a long quest for Reinaldo Ramirez, a 51-year-old construction contractor from the western town of Jaguey Grande. Starting in 2006, he tried and failed to reach Florida seven times by boat – including the day Obama canceled “wet foot, dry foot.”

The new route has been just as arduous. After flying into Guyana in September, Ramirez and his wife had to hike across the Darien Gap, a remote stretch of jungle straddling Panama and Colombia. After they crossed the first time, Panamanian authorities deported them to Colombia, forcing them to repeat the trek.

Ramirez arrived in Ciudad Juarez about three weeks ago, and hundreds of asylum seekers are ahead of him in line. But he cannot help but feel that he is close.

“I’ve almost achieved my objective, my American dream,” he said.

(Reporting by Julia Love; additional reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez in Ciudad Juarez, Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Sarah Marsh in Havana, Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Peter Cooney)

White House softens tone after threat to close border with Mexico

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent cast his shadow on a plaque marking the boundaries of Mexico and United States, at Paso del Norte international border crossing bridge, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Steve Holland and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House took a step back from its threat to close the southern U.S. border on Tuesday, saying Mexico has begun to take actions to address the immigration problem on its end.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the Trump administration sees Mexico “stepping up and taking a greater sense of responsibility” for dealing with the immigration flows that U.S. officials say are overwhelming ports of entry along the border.

“They have started to do a significant amount more. We’ve seen them take a larger number of individuals” and hold those who have asylum claims in Mexico while they are being processed in the United States, Sanders told reporters at the White House.

“We’ve also seen them stop more people from coming across the border so that they aren’t even entering into the United States. So those two things are certainly helpful and we’d like to see them continue,” Sanders said.

Trump hinted at the shift earlier in a Twitter post earlier on Tuesday. “After many years (decades), Mexico is apprehending large numbers of people at their Southern Border, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,” he said.

Trump threatened on Friday to close the border with this week unless Mexico took steps to stop immigrants from reaching the United States illegally. Closing the border with Mexico could disrupt millions of legal border crossings and billions of dollars in trade.

Sanders said the administration was “looking at all options when it comes to closing the different ports of entry, what that looks like and what the impacts would be.”

She told Fox News the administration wanted Mexico to continue working to address the issue so “we aren’t forced to take drastic action like closing the ports of entry at our border.”

She said the administration’s Council of Economic Advisers is doing studies on the impact of closing different ports of entries to give Trump some options.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Alistair Bell)

‘No regrets’: Saudi sisters hope for bright future after hiding in Hong Kong

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured in Hong Kong, China March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Yuyang Wang

By Anne Marie Roantree and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two Saudi Arabian sisters are hoping for a “bright, beautiful future” after being granted asylum, fleeing what they describe as an abusive family and a repressive society.

The sisters fled from their family last September while on holiday in Sri Lanka and have been stranded in Hong Kong since an aborted attempt to get to Australia, where they hoped to secure asylum.

For reasons of safety, the sisters, aged 18 and 20, who say they were beaten by their father and brothers, asked that their names and faces not be revealed, nor the country to which they have now gone.

“Oh my God, I was so happy,” the curly haired younger sister told Reuters recently, describing how she felt when told asylum had been secured.

“I screamed ‘It’s real, it’s happening’ … It was just relief and unforgettable.”

The sisters spoke to Reuters in a room on the 22nd floor of a Hong Kong hotel shortly before they left the city. Hong Kong-based rights lawyer, Michael Vidler, who has been helping them, attended.

They said they had lived in fear for six months, shuttling between 15 safe houses, staying with a nun, families and at a shelter for abused women.

They feared being intercepted by Saudi officials or relatives and forced to return home, where they believe they could be punished for renouncing Islam, which is punishable by death under the Saudi system of Islamic law.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to requests for comment.

In a statement late on Monday, Vidler confirmed the sisters had successfully traveled to a third country on “humanitarian visas”.

“To ensure their future security we will not be disclosing the third country where the sisters are now living, nor will we be providing any further details,” he wrote on the Facebook page of his law firm. “The sisters will not be giving any further media interviews.”

The sisters said they were treated harshly, at times beaten, by their brothers and father.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” the younger sister previously told Reuters.

‘NO REGRET’

They were also critical of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system that requires women to have a male relative’s permission to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment.

“Women are just like slaves,” said the older sister, adding that her dream was to become a writer one day.

“I want to settle down and to feel safe, and (to know) that I have rights and I matter in that country. Just to live normal, and discover myself … because now I own my life.”

This is not the first case in Asia this year of young Saudi women fleeing what they said was repression.

In January, an 18-year-old Saudi woman was granted asylum in Canada after fleeing her family and barricading herself in a Bangkok hotel to resist being sent home.

Her case drew global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

The Saudi mission in Bangkok declined to comment on that case saying it was a family affair.

The kingdom has given women more rights in recent years. Women have been allowed to enter sports stadiums, vote in local elections, and take a greater role in the workforce as Saudi Arabia tries to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

A ban on driving was lifted last year but many women have taken to social media to push for more freedom. Campaigners say the main sticking point remains the guardianship policy.

‘FIND YOUR LIGHT’

Riyadh has also faced scrutiny from Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

The sisters watched the news of Khashoggi’s death unfold while in hiding in Hong Kong.

“I said to my sister, ‘I’m glad we left. This is the country we left’, there is no regret at all,” said the older sister, who counts George Orwell’s “1984” as one of her favorite books and likened its dystopian society to her homeland.

“It’s a science fiction book but it’s real in Saudi,” she said.

The pair hatched their escape plan over several years, secretly hoarding about $5,000, partly by scrimping on items they were given money to buy, and had timed it to coincide with the younger sister’s 18th birthday.

They said they had been wracked with uncertainty as a deadline for them to leave Chinese-ruled Hong Kong passed last month. Amnesty International had urged Hong Kong authorities not to return the sisters to Saudi Arabia.

The younger sister, who counts Radiohead and Queen among her favorite bands, said she hoped to inspire young people to stand against social injustice.

“Don’t just stick to the wall and cry. Because if you would cry it would be worse … Fight in your own way and you will find your own light.”

Dressed in a red T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, she said she had no regrets.

“There’s a bright, beautiful future awaiting me.”

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)

On U.S. border, fence meant as barrier becomes lure for migrants

A group of Central American migrants surrenders to U.S. Border Patrol Agent Jose Martinez south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Andrew Hay, Lucy Nicholson and Jane Ross

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) – Huddled against a border fence on a bitterly cold morning in El Paso, Texas, a group of 60 Guatemalan migrants, around half toddlers and children, shouted for help: “We’re cold, we’re hungry, we need shelter.”

The group was trying to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents and claim asylum, but the agents were too busy herding other groups along the fence that stands about 100 yards (91 m) inside U.S. territory.

The 18-foot-high (5.5 meters) steel barrier is meant to deter illegal immigration. But its position inside the border has turned it into a destination for human smugglers trafficking large groups of asylum seekers fleeing poverty and violence.

The smugglers in recent weeks have shifted routes to El Paso from the remote Antelope Wells area of New Mexico, Border Patrol supervisory agent Joe Romero said.

A group of Central American migrants surrenders to U.S. Border Patrol Agents south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Once undocumented migrants are on U.S. soil, the Border Patrol is obliged to arrest them for entering illegally. But migrants can claim fear of returning to their countries, allowing them to remain in the United States legally until an asylum hearing, which can take months or years.

The smugglers’ strategy exploits a weakness in the very border wall President Donald Trump has touted as a means to protect the United States from undocumented immigrants and illicit drugs.

The crowds in El Paso illustrate changing immigration patterns. As recently as 2015, the majority of undocumented border crossers were adult men from Mexico looking to disappear into the country and find work. Now the Border Patrol says about 85 percent of migrants arriving in the El Paso sector are Central American families and children seeking asylum.

Gaspar Isom, 38, who was with his 16-year-old son Sebastian, said he chose El Paso for the relative safety of its sister Mexican border city, Ciudad Juarez.

“We were told other places were more dangerous to cross, they were controlled by the Zetas,” Isom said, referring to the Mexican cartel.

The pair were among close to 1,000 mostly Central American migrants who crossed into El Paso on Wednesday in the kind of surge the U.S. border has not seen in over a decade, Border Patrol data show.

El Paso is not alone in seeing an uptick. Over 268,000 undocumented migrants were arrested at the Southwest border from October through February, a near doubling over the same period a year earlier, to a 12-year high, according to government data released this week. Annual apprehensions remain well below the peak of 1.6 million in 2000.

A group of Central American migrants is questioned about their children's health after surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol Agents south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

A group of Central American migrants is questioned about their children’s health after surrendering to U.S. Border Patrol Agents south of the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Border Patrol officials say the El Paso fence, one of multiple sections of barrier built inside the border due to quirks of local topography, is successful in stopping migrants from scattering into El Paso.

But they acknowledge having a hard time keeping up with the numbers. El Paso sector Border Patrol stations reached capacity on Wednesday, and the group of 60 was finally picked up at 5 a.m. Thursday, after spending two nights sleeping by the fence, according to Dylan Corbett, who helps run a migrant shelter operated by El Paso’s Roman Catholic diocese.

Romero said the agency ran out of space to safely and securely transport migrants: “We have manpower shortages, our facilities are at capacity if not more.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hay, Lucy Nicholson and Jane Ross; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)

Exclusive: For migrant youths claiming abuse, U.S. protection can be elusive

An unidentified Honduran immigrant is photographed in his apartment in New York, U.S., March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Zachary Goelman

By Mica Rosenberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Growing up in eastern Honduras, Jose said his father would get drunk and beat him with a horse whip and the flat side of a machete. He said he watched his father, a coffee farmer whose crops succumbed to plague, hit his mother on the head with a pistol, sending her to the hospital for three days from the abuse.

At 17, Jose said, he hired a coyote to ferry him to the United States, seeking to escape his home life and violent feuding among his relatives, as well as seek better opportunities for himself and his siblings. He was picked up by border agents, then released pending deportation proceedings.

After struggling to get a good lawyer, Jose applied at 19 for special protection under a program for young immigrants subjected to childhood mistreatment including abuse, neglect or abandonment.

But like a growing number of applicants, his petition hit a series of hurdles, then was denied. Now he is appealing.

“It’s like being stuck not going forward or backwards,” said Jose, now 22 and living in New York. He spoke on condition his last name not be used because he is working without a permit and does not want to jeopardize his appeal. “You can’t advance in life,” he said.

As President Donald Trump vociferously pushes for a physical barrier across the country’s southern border, young people claiming to be eligible for protection under the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) program increasingly face a less publicized barrier: heightened demands for paperwork.

Data obtained by Reuters under the Freedom of Information Act show that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has recently ramped up demands for additional documents through “Requests for Evidence” and “Notices of Intent to Deny,” which can tie up cases for months.

The program allows immigrants under 21 to apply for permanent residency in the United States if a state court determines that they need protection and that returning to their home countries would be unsafe. Since 2010, about 54,000 applications have been approved.

In fiscal year 2016, before Trump took office, USCIS issued 347 “Requests for Evidence,” the data show. A year later, the agency issued 4,153, while the overall number of new applications rose only slightly.

“Notices of Intent to Deny,” one of the last opportunities to submit additional information before a petition is rejected, doubled in fiscal year to 767 in 2017 compared to fiscal 2016.

Meanwhile, approvals of special immigrant juvenile status petitions dropped by nearly 60 percent in the 2018 fiscal year compared to a year earlier, to 4,712, while denials increased more than 88 percent, according to federal data.

USCIS Spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement that the agency evaluates every petition case by case and that requesting additional evidence “cut down on frivolous petitions and applications, reduce waste, and help to improve the integrity and efficiency of the immigration petition process.”

Immigrant advocates and attorneys have turned to the special protection program as one avenue to offer young migrants who had come from violent pasts a path to legal residency in the United States. Some apply for asylum at the same time.

But for years critics have seen the youth program and other forms of legal relief for Central Americans, including some asylum protections, as “loopholes” that are too permissive and end up encouraging more migration.

It’s “shockingly easy for any minor that is represented by a lawyer to meet the requirements of the law regardless of whether they have been abused, neglected and abandoned,” said Jessica Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports increased immigration restrictions.

‘LOW-HANGING FRUIT’

Migrant attorneys say the administration is using an administrative back door to curb the program. They say many of the requests for additional evidence are technical – requiring proof, for instance, that a state court’s order was issued according to that state’s law.

These advocates say a large chunk of cases being challenged by the Trump administration are those like Jose’s, in which applicants applied between the ages of 18 and 21, and in which the government has challenged the jurisdiction of state family courts in the proceedings.

Immigration rights groups have sued the government in California, New York and Washington state over what they say are blanket denials of petitions from that older group. In the California suit, a judge in February issued a preliminary ruling against the administration, saying state courts do have jurisdiction. A ruling is expected soon in New York, and the Washington suit was just filed Tuesday.

“These post-18 cases are the low-hanging fruit,” said Maria Odom, the former independent ombudsman for USCIS under President Barack Obama. “This is just one piece of (the administration’s) overall plan to destroy protections for unaccompanied minors to try to stop the flow.”

Rich Leimsider, Executive Director of Safe Passage Project speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in New York, U.S., February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Rich Leimsider, Executive Director of Safe Passage Project speaks during an interview with Reuters at his office in New York, U.S., February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

MISSION CREEP?

Underlying these disputes is a conflict over the purpose of the 1990 law authorizing the youth protection program.

The law was passed in response to growing concerns about foreign children becoming homeless or orphaned in the United States because of abandonment or abusive family situations. Eligibility was expanded in 2008 under a U.S. anti-human trafficking law to include kids abandoned by just one parent even if they were being cared for by the other.

Applications ballooned during the Obama administration following a surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, many from violent countries in Central America.

The government received 1,646 applications for the status in fiscal year 2010; in 2018, the number of applications jumped more than thirteenfold.

“This is not what the original law anticipated,” said Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies. “It was meant for kids who were trafficked.”

By statute, USCIS is supposed to process applications in six months, but Randi Mandelbaum, who runs a legal clinic at Rutgers Law School that serves immigrant foster kids, said she is handling a dozen cases that have been pending longer than a year. The delays can be painful, she said.

Young people “are already very vulnerable and now they can’t move on,” Mandelbaum said. “Their lives are on hold.”

(This story has been refiled to correct the spelling of USCIS spokesman’s name in 13th paragraph)

(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson)

‘I was like a prisoner’: Saudi sisters trapped in Hong Kong recall beatings

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured at an office in Hong Kong, China February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Aleksander Solum

By Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two sisters from Saudi Arabia who fled the conservative kingdom and have been hiding out in Hong Kong for nearly six months said they did so to escape beatings at the hands of their brothers and father.

The pair, who say they have renounced their Muslim faith, arrived in the Chinese territory from Sri Lanka in September. They say they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Australia and were intercepted at the airport by diplomats from Saudi Arabia.

Reuters could not independently verify their story.

Asked about the case, Hong Kong police said they had received a report from “two expatriate women” in September and were investigating, but did not elaborate.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to repeated requests from Reuters for comment.

The case is the second high-profile example this year of Saudi women seeking to escape their country and spotlights the kingdom’s strict social rules, including a requirement that females seek permission from a male “guardian” to travel.

The sisters, aged 18 and 20, managed to leave Hong Kong airport but consular officials have since revoked their passports, leaving them stranded in the city for nearly six months, their lawyer, Michael Vidler, said.

Vidler, one of the leading activist lawyers in the territory, also confirmed the authenticity of a Twitter account written by the two women describing their plight.

On Saturday, dressed in jeans and wearing sneakers, the softly spoken women described what they said was a repressive and unhappy life at their home in the Saudi capital Riyadh. They said they had adopted the aliases Reem and Rawan, because they fear using their real names could lead to their being traced if granted asylum in a third country.

They posed for pictures but asked their features not be revealed.

Every decision had to be approved by the men in their house, from the clothes they wore to the hairstyle they chose – even the times when they woke and went to sleep, the sisters told Reuters.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” said the younger sister, Rawan, referring to two brothers aged 24 and 25 as well as her father.

“It was basically modern day slavery. You can’t go out of the house unless someone is with us. Sometimes we will stay for months without even seeing the sun,” the elder sister, Reem, said.

In January, a Saudi woman made global headlines by barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel to avoid being sent home to her family. She was later granted asylum in Canada.

“BROTHER BRAINWASHED”

Reem and Rawan said their 10-year-old brother was also encouraged to beat them.

“They brainwashed him,” Rawan said, referring to her older brothers. Although he was only a child, she said she feared her younger brother would become like her older siblings.

The family includes two other sisters, aged five and 12. Reem said she and her sister feel terrible about leaving them, although they “hope their family will get a lesson from this and it might help to change their lives for the better.”

Reem and Rawan decided to escape while on a family holiday in Sri Lanka in September. They had secretly saved around $5,000 since 2016, some of it accumulated by scrimping on items they were given money to buy.

The timing of their escape was carefully planned to coincide with Rawan’s 18th birthday so she could apply for a visitor’s visa to Australia without her parents’ approval.

But what was supposed to be a two-hour stopover in Hong Kong has turned into nearly six months and the sisters are now living in fear that they will be forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia.

They have said they have renounced Islam – a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, although the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

The pair say they have changed locations 13 times in Hong Kong, living in hotels, shelters and with individuals who are helping, sometimes staying just one night in a place before moving on to ensure their safety.

Vidler said the Hong Kong Immigration Department told the women their Saudi passports had been invalidated and they could only stay in the city until February 28.

The department has said it does not comment on individual cases.

The sisters have applied for asylum in a third country which they declined to name in a bid keep the information from Saudi authorities and their family.

“We believe that we have the right to live like any other human being,” said Reem, who said she studied English literature in Riyadh and dreams of becoming a writer one day.

Asked what would happen on Feb 28, after which they can no longer legally stay in Hong Kong, the sisters said they had no idea.

“I hope this doesn’t last any longer,” Rawan said.

(Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

I did it for my daughter, says woman arrested for headscarf protest in Iran

Azam Jangravi poses during an interview with Reuters, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019. REUTERS

By Emily Wither

(Reuters) – Azam Jangravi’s heart was pounding when she climbed atop an electricity transformer box on Tehran’s busy Revolution Street a year ago. She raised her headscarf in the air and waved it above her head.

A crowd formed. People shouted at her to come down. She knew all along she was going to be arrested. But she did it anyway, she says, to change the country for her eight-year-old daughter.

“I was telling myself: ‘Viana should not grow up in the same conditions in this country that you grew up in’,” Jangavi recalled this week in an interview in an apartment in an undisclosed location outside Iran, where she now awaits news on an application for asylum.

Azam Jangravi holds hands with her daughter in a park, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019. REUTERS

Azam Jangravi holds hands with her daughter in a park, at the unknown location, February 7, 2019. REUTERS

“I kept telling myself: ‘You can do this, you can do this’,” she said. “I was feeling a very special kind of power. It was as if I was not the secondary gender anymore.”

After her protest, she was arrested, fired from her job at a research institute and sentenced to three years in prison for promoting indecency and wilfully breaking Islamic law.

The court threatened to take her daughter away, but she managed to escape Iran – with Viana – before her jail term began: “I found a human smuggler with a lot of difficulty. It all happened very quickly, I left my life, my house, my car behind,” she said.

As she spoke, Viana sketched pictures. They showed her mother waving the white hijab in the air.

Since Iran’s Islamic Revolution 40 years ago this week, women have been ordered to cover their hair for the sake of modesty. Violators are publicly admonished, fined or arrested.

Jangravi was one of at least 39 women arrested last year in connection with hijab protests, according to Amnesty International, which says another 55 people were detained for their work on women’s rights, including women who tried to enter football stadiums illegally and lawyers advocating for women.

Authorities go to “extreme and absurd lengths to stop their campaign”, said Amnesty’s Iran researcher Mansoureh Mills. “Like searching people’s homes for pin badges that have ‘I am against forced hijab’ written on them.”

The badges are part of continued efforts to highlight the hijab issue, along with a campaign for women to wear white headscarves on Wednesdays.

Jangravi recalls stories her mother told her about life before the revolution: “She told me that the revolution caused a great deal of sexism and they separated men and women.”

She was inspired to act after two other women were arrested for similar protests on the same street.

“Of course we don’t expect everyone to climb up the platform in Revolution Street,” she said. “But this made our voices heard by the entire world. What we girls did made this movement into something that continues.”

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Saudi-backed organization denounces countries for ‘inciting’ women to flee

FILE PHOTO: Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (C) accompanied by Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (R) and Saba Abbas, general counsellor of COSTI refugee service agency, arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 12, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – An organization backed by Saudi Arabia accused several foreign countries of inciting young women to reject their families, the first public comments from Riyadh since a woman claiming domestic abuse was granted asylum in Canada over the weekend.

The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) did not name 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who grabbed international attention after barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room and appealing for help on Twitter to resist being sent back to her family, which denies any abuse.

But in a statement late on Sunday NSHR head Mufleh al-Qahtani accused unspecified countries and international organizations of pursuing political agendas and “pushing (women) ultimately to be lost and maybe to fall into the arms of brokers and human traffickers”.

While NSHR says it is independent, the U.S. State Department describes it as “government-funded”.

Riyadh’s human rights record has been in the spotlight since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul consulate in October. There has also been growing international criticism of the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes in Yemen that have caused heavy civilian casualties including children.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Riyadh on Monday, said he spoke with Saudi leaders about Yemen, Khashoggi and other human rights issues.

NSHR “was surprised by some countries’ incitement of some Saudi female delinquents to rebel against the values of their families and push them out of the country and seek to receive them under the pretext of granting them asylum,” Qahtani said.

He did not name Canada or Australia, which also considered offering Qunun asylum, or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which granted her refugee status.

Qunun arrived in Toronto on Saturday, wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the word Canada, and a cap bearing the UNHCR logo. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland welcomed her at the airport, calling her “a very brave new Canadian.”

Canada’s move comes amid tension with Riyadh after Ottawa demanded the immediate release of jailed rights activists last year, prompting Saudi Arabia to expel its ambassador to Canada, recall Saudis living there and freeze new trade.

The case has also drawn attention to Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, which requires women to have the permission of a male relative to travel, sometimes trapping them as prisoners of abusive families.

Qahtani said Saudi laws forbid mistreatment and allow women to report it, but international rights groups say in practice many Saudi women fear that going to the police would only further endanger their lives.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

Saudi teen to depart Thailand for Canada asylum-Thai immigration chief

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – A Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her has been granted asylum in Canada and is traveling there on Friday, the Thai immigration chief told Reuters.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, will board a Korean Air flight from Bangkok to Seoul on Friday night, immigration chief Surachate Hakpark said, before boarding a connecting flight to Canada.

“Canada has granted her asylum,” Surachate told Reuters. “She’ll leave tonight at 11.15 p.m.

Canadian authorities said they could not confirm that Qunun had been granted asylum in Canada.

“We have nothing new to add on this right now,” a spokesman for Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said.

Qunun arrived in Bangkok on Saturday and was initially denied entry but after a tense 48-hour stand-off at Bangkok airport, some of it barricaded in a transit lounge hotel room, she was allowed to enter the country and has been processed as a refugee by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Qunun has accused her family of abuse and has refused to meet her father and brother who arrived in Bangkok to try to take her back to Saudi Arabia.

Her case has drawn global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male “guardian” to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

Qunun’s plight has emerged at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Instanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

Australia had said on Wednesday that it was considering taking in Qunun.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in OTTAWA, Editing by William Maclean)