Is Ottawa serious about protecting refugees?
Publisher: The Toronto Star, Canada
Author: by Lorne Waldman
Story date: 17/11/2011
Language: English

The recent stories in the Toronto Star about the refusal of a visa to the Afghan interpreter who had worked with the Canadian Forces are deeply disturbing. Unfortunately, this story is far from unique: every year many people who apply for protection at visa offices abroad are wrongly refused even though there is strong evidence that they would be at risk of persecution or serious harm.

In the case of the Afghan interpreter, the conclusion that he was not in danger is incomprehensible and was made in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. Anyone who has been following events in Afghanistan is aware that the government's hold on power is tenuous and that it cannot even protect members of the government from the Taliban.

The fact that the interpreter had been identified as someone who had worked with Canadian Forces would undoubtedly expose him to a grave risk of reprisals. That the officer could come to the contrary conclusion and deny him the visa only demonstrates that the system for determining who can obtain protection abroad is deeply flawed. One might suspect that there is more to this story – perhaps he is being punished for having spoken out earlier about the delays in processing his application. If such political considerations can come into play, then this would further undermine public confidence in the overseas procedures used to decide which refugees get protection in Canada.

But what is more distressing is that this case is not an isolated one. Earlier this year the Federal Court overturned a large number of cases where refugees who had applied for protection at the Canadian Embassy in Cairo had been refused visas. The cases involved people who had fled from Eritrea who had applied for protection in Canada. Although they had been found to be refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Canadian immigration officer rejected their applications concluding that there was no evidence they would be at risk.

The court found the findings unreasonable, noting: "The evidence of the UNHCR designation was so important to the Applicant's case that it can be inferred from the Officer's failure to mention it in her reasons that the decision was made without regard to it. This is a central element to the context of the decision. The Officer, faced with a UNHCR refugee, should have explained in her assessment why she did not concur with the decision of the UNHCR. The Officer was not under any obligation to blindly follow the UNHCR designation; however, she was obliged to have regard to it. Unless a visa officer explains why a UNHCR designation is not being followed, we have no way of knowing whether regard was had to this highly relevant evidence."

These are not isolated examples, but part of a systemic problem. Visa officers do not have the necessary training to be making these life and death decisions. They are often ill informed about country conditions that are directly pertinent to their decisions. And because visa officer decisions are made outside of Canada, they are far more difficult to challenge. In most instances, their decisions are not challenged and the same mistakes are repeated.

The irony of this situation is that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has been promoting the overseas refugee process as the "right way" to seek protection in Canada. For months Kenney has been arguing that the overseas process should be the preferred route for Canada to select refugees. He has gone out of his way to label those refugees who come to Canada to make claims as "illegal claimants" and "queue jumpers." Indeed, he has used these labels to justify the draconian measures that are contained in the new anti-smuggling legislation before Parliament.

However, as the case of the Afghan interpreter illustrates, our track record at selecting refugees outside of Canada is nothing to boast about. Moreover, community groups that privately sponsor refugees – at no public expense – have been expressing concerns that the government plans to terminate future applications. In the face of this evidence, one wonders whether this government really has a serious commitment to helping those who need protection.

Raid survivor says FARC 'still a force'
Publisher: Al Jazeera
Story date: 17/11/2011
Language: English

Claims by the Colombian government that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is almost defeated are false, according to the sole survivor of an attack by the army which killed the leader of the leftist group, better known by its acronym FARC.

In an exclusive interview to Al Jazeera, Tomas Garcia, the only man to survive the November 4 military assault which killed Alfonso Cano, FARC's top commander, said the government was lying to the people.

"They should be honest with what is going on," Garcia, a bodyguard of Cano, said. "They don't want to acknowledge that we are still a force. In some areas we have units with 300 and 400 men."

The death of Cano was viewed by many as a major blow to FARC, with the hopes of pushing the armed group to start peace talks.

Yet, according to Garcia, Cano had been involved in talks with the government of President Juan Manuel Santos before he was killed.

"They were even discussing [carrying out] talks in Cuba," Garcia said.

"They had several meetings to discuss the chances of peace," but the talks never developed as the logistics would have been humiliating for the government, he said.

If true, these meetings would be an explosive revelation as the Colombian government has said before it would only negotiate with FARC if the group laid down its arms.

The Colombian government has neither confirmed nor denied to Al Jazeera if these meetings with Cano took place.

In an announcement on Tuesday, FARC named Rodrigo Londono as its new leader, a man analysts consider to be a hardliner and less open to dialogue than Cano.

In Alabama, Calls for Revamping Immigration Law
Publisher: the New York Times, USA
Story date: 17/11/2011
Language: English

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — An increasing number of state lawmakers say they are willing to consider critical changes to Alabama's sweeping anti-immigration law, part of which appears to make proof of citizenship or legal residency a requirement even for mundane activities like garbage pickup, dog licenses and flu shots at county health departments.

As they learn more about the breadth of the law, which was already described as the most far-reaching of the state-level immigration laws when it went into effect on Sept. 29, some political leaders have gone beyond acknowledging a general need for "tweaks" to openly discussing specific changes, which in some cases are as substantial as getting rid of certain provisions in their entirety.

"The longer the bill has been out, the more unintended consequences we have found," said Slade Blackwell, a Republican state senator. "All of us realize we need to change it."

Changing this law is not as easy as it may appear. For one thing, it is still very popular. Those open to changes are quick to emphasize that they do not want to dilute the law's purpose: to deter illegal immigrants from working in the state and to prevent them from benefiting from taxpayer-financed services.

"Eighty percent of the population of the state thinks it's a good bill, so politically you're kind of careful to say anything negative about it," said Judge James V. Perdue, president of the Alabama Probate Judges Association. "Those that passed it don't want to admit that there's anything wrong with it."

But as lawmakers hear complaints from business leaders and constituents, several have become more willing to discuss changing, clarifying or in some cases scrapping sections of the law governing schools, government transactions and several of the law's stiff penalty provisions.

Outside of farmers and poultry plant operators, who have complained of severe labor shortages, the most pointed criticisms concern a legally vague provision that requires proof of immigration status for "any transaction between a person and the state or a political subdivision of the state."

The law lists three examples of such transactions: renewing driver's licenses, business licenses and car tags. In a court filing in August, the state argued that the United States Justice Department, which is challenging the law, was exaggerating the law's reach.

"Its fear that Section 30 would prohibit such aliens from having running water or sewer services, for example, has little basis," the filing said.

But lawyers across the state are concluding that this section could be interpreted, in the words of Birmingham's city attorney, Thomas Bentley, to apply to "almost everything that we do."

Utilities that are run directly by municipalities, like Huntsville Utilities, which provides electricity, water and gas to 164,000 customers, are indeed barred by the law from providing any services to illegal immigrants. Other utilities, those that are public corporations like Alabama Power, are not. Some exist in a legally complicated territory in between.

"One afternoon, we sat down and we had the county directory and we went through and made a list of every county department that interfaces directly with citizens," said Julian Butler, the attorney for Madison County, which includes the City of Huntsville.

Some already required some form of identification, Mr. Butler said, but many did not. He and his colleagues are still discussing whether people can rent a pavilion at a county park, enroll children in a Little League team or sign up for a membership at the county swimming pool without first proving that they are citizens or legal residents. Paying property taxes might require a trip to the courthouse with documentation. Architects, nurses, hair stylists, plumbers, real estate agents and a host of other professions will have to demonstrate their legal status every time their licenses are renewed.

"There are a lot of frustrated citizens that are being inconvenienced by the implementation of the law and who didn't think it was going to impact them," said State Senator Paul Sanford, the only Republican senator to vote against the law and the author of two bills that would amend it.

To enable online transactions and thus shorten the long lines that have formed at some courthouses, the state created a database of everyone with a current Alabama driver's license, a document the state has deemed acceptable proof of immigration status.

But there are some transactions that require more than that. And people with out-of-state licenses or military ID's will in many cases have to produce some other documentation in person at government offices.

"I had a military guy who came back from Afghanistan and went to get him a tag for a new truck and he couldn't, he needed to show his birth certificate," said State Senator Gerald Dial, who voted for the law but said he would not have if he had known of some of its "unintended consequences."

As the law is written, the stakes of wrong interpretation are high. Agencies or officials that do not carry out the law to its fullest extent could be liable for civil or criminal penalties. Observing a violation of the law and failing to report it is a crime. A clerk who violates Section 30 could be facing a felony charge.

"If it's a borderline case, you're going to err on the side of caution," Judge Perdue said. "I talked to people who wrote the law and they said, 'That's not what we meant.' But if you say 'felony' I've got to assume that's the way it is."

The breadth of the law has, in some ways, flipped the political script. The Huntsville Times, in an editorial, derided the Republican sponsors of the law for teaching "a lesson about the ills of big government." More than a few officials have disparaged it as an unfunded mandate.

In an e-mail message, State Senator Scott Beason, a Republican who sponsored the law, rebuffed this criticism, pointing out that "providing identification is a common practice when dealing with the state and many private entities." He also added that he has long been open to "ironing out any administrative difficulties or ambiguities." Gov. Robert Bentley has also recently said that the law was "complicated" and needed to be simplified.

Senator Sanford, who said he was fully supportive of the law's intent, acknowledged the political difficulties of making changes he considered necessary.

"If you put too many issues out there that need to get fixed," he said, "it looks like you passed a totally flawed bill, and that's why you hear words like, 'Well, we just want to tweak it.' "

The proposed changes range in scope, and until the Legislature meets in January, are largely in the discussion stages.

For his part, Senator Dial said he wanted to change the section covering government transactions, but to completely drop the provision that requires schools to ascertain immigration status of new students, a section that has been temporarily blocked by a federal appeals court. He also said he would insert a "good Samaritan" provision for anyone trying to help illegal immigrants in emergencies.

In the meantime, the Alabama Department of Homeland Security has been inviting state and county officials to regular meetings in Montgomery so that they can arrive at a uniform interpretation of the law, said John Schremser, a spokesman for the department.

For now, he said, "We're asking them to do the best they can with what they've got."

U.S. to Review Cases Seeking Deportations
Publisher: the New York Times, USA
Story date: 17/11/2011
Language: English

The Department of Homeland Security will begin a review on Thursday of all deportation cases before the immigration courts and start a nationwide training program for enforcement agents and prosecuting lawyers, with the goal of speeding deportations of convicted criminals and halting those of many illegal immigrants with no criminal record.

The accelerated triage of the court docket — about 300,000 cases — is intended to allow severely overburdened immigration judges to focus on deporting foreigners who committed serious crimes or pose national security risks, Homeland Security officials said. Taken together, the review and the training, which will instruct immigration agents on closing deportations that fall outside the department's priorities, are designed to bring sweeping changes to the immigration courts and to enforcement strategies of field agents nationwide.

According to a document obtained by The New York Times, Homeland Security officials will issue guidelines on Thursday to begin the training program and the first stages of the court caseload review. Both are efforts to put into practice a policy senior officials had announced in June, to encourage immigration agents to use prosecutorial discretion when deciding whether to pursue a deportation.

The policy, described in a June 17 memorandum by John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, suggested that the Obama administration would scale back deportations of illegal immigrants who were young students, military service members, elderly people or close family of American citizens, among others. While the announcement raised excited expectations in Latino and other immigrant communities, until now the policy has been applied spottily, deepening disillusionment with President Obama in those communities.

The Obama administration has removed high numbers of illegal immigrants, nearly 400,000 in each of the last three years. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Mr. Morton said those numbers would not decrease, but they wanted agents and courts to focus on deporting the worst offenders, including national security risks, criminal convicts and those who repeatedly violate immigration laws. Many immigration offenses, including being present in the United States without legal status, are civil violations; they are not crimes.

Administration officials have flexibility to transform immigration court procedures because those courts are part of the Justice Department in the executive branch, not part of the federal judiciary. Central to the plan is giving more power to immigration agency lawyers — the equivalent of prosecutors in the federal court system — to decide which deportation cases to press.

"We are empowering the attorneys nationally to make them more like federal prosecutors, who decide what cases to bring," said a senior Homeland Security official, who asked not to be named because the policy has not been formally announced.

In the first stage of the court docket review, which will begin on Thursday, immigration agency lawyers will examine all new cases just arriving in immigration courts nationwide, with an eye to closing cases that are low-priority according to the Morton memorandum, before they advance into the court system.

At the same time, immigrants identified as high priority will see their cases put onto an expedited calendar for judges to order their deportations, Homeland Security officials said.

The goal is to "reduce inefficiencies that delay the removal of criminal aliens and other priority cases by preventing new low priority cases from clogging the immigration court dockets," the Homeland Security document said. Officials said the first stage was an "initial test run" that would be completed by Jan. 13.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group that analyzes immigration court data, reported in September that the backlog before the nation's 59 immigration courts was at "a new all-time high."

In a second stage, to begin Dec. 4, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department will start six-week pilot projects in the immigration courts in Baltimore and Denver, in which teams of immigration agency lawyers will comb through the current dockets of those courts. They will focus on cases of immigrants who have been arrested for deportation, but who are not being held in detention while their cases proceed.

Immigrants who are deemed to qualify for prosecutorial discretion will have their cases closed, but not dismissed, officials said. That means that agents could re-open the deportations at any time if the immigrants commit a crime or a new immigration violation. Immigrants whose cases are closed will be allowed to remain in the United States, but they will be in legal limbo, without any positive immigration status.

The pilot projects will also end on Jan. 13, and then officials will decide how to expand the program to all immigration courts nationwide early next year.

Also on Thursday, Homeland Security officials will introduce a training program based on scenarios that could arise in enforcement operations, which every Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent must complete by mid-January. The goal is to instruct agents, many of whom have expressed doubts about Mr. Morton's policy, to apply the prosecutorial discretion criteria.

The approach of deporting some illegal immigrants but not others requires a deep change in the mentality of the agents, who have long operated on the principle that any violation was good cause for deportation.

Republicans in Congress have denounced the new deportations policy, accusing the Obama administration of trying an end-run around Congress by granting de facto amnesty to illegal immigrants. Representative Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the prosecutorial discretion policy had the "specific purpose of overruling or preventing orders of removal for illegal immigrants."

Administration officials said they would proceed case by case using existing legal authorities, and had no plans to exempt any large group of illegal immigrants from deportation.

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