On February 23rd, the Human Rights Brief hosted its inaugural Disability Rights Symposium in conjunction with the Washington College of Law’s (WCL) Disability Law Society. The first panel was titled “Immigration, Refugee Law, and Disability Rights” and featured Michael Tan of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Khawla Wakkaf of Women Enabled International, and Priscila Rodriguez of Disability Rights International (DRI) with moderation by Adrian Álvarez from WCL’s Disability Rights Clinic.
Ms. Wakkaf kicked off the discussion by placing the panel topic in the context of the Syrian Civil War. She explained that war is one of the greatest creators of disability and that this is especially apparent in Syria; the United Nations estimated in 2016 that 2.8 million Syrians have sustained some type of disability since the conflict started in 2010. She believes that the most effective solution for Syrian refugees would be to implement an effective data management system as a means to locate refugees and provide them with the appropriate services, medical or otherwise. Without such a system, it is orders of magnitude more difficult to know how many people need help or what kind of help they need.
Mr. Tan used the Rosa Maria Hernandez case as a second case study for the issue; Rosa Maria is a ten-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who was brought to the US as an infant and was detained by border patrol on her way to the hospital. Her parents sent her cousin in the ambulance with her along with a consent note, which likely would have been sufficient under the Obama administration, but the two were investigated and followed to the hospital. There, border patrol officers waited outside the operating room and arrested the girl as soon as she was out of surgery. She was detained in San Antonio for ten days, away from her family for the first time, and was only released once the ACLU filed suit for her release. Unsurprisingly, the child was still traumatized from the incident after returning home. This, Mr. Tan articulated, shows the fundamental flaw in the Trump administration’s execution of the Immigration and Nationality Act: their dismantling of Obama-era enforcement discretion subjects thousands of US residents to the fear of indiscriminate deportation. With everyone now a priority for deportation, the Trump administration has effectively declared open season on immigrant communities. Immigrants with disabilities now fear that a hospital visit could result in deportation, which impacts their ability to access the healthcare they need.
Ms. Rodriguez described Disability Rights International’s (DRI) role in this conversation as a disability rights organization being pulled in to the immigration field by the need to help disabled refugees. DRI investigated living conditions in Mexican and Guatemalan institutions and the treatment of those living there, which, in some cases, constituted torture. DRI has increasingly been called upon by immigration authorities as an expert witness as to why a disabled person should not be deported back to either of those locations, because of the likelihood that he or she will end up in an institution where gross human rights violations occur daily. She explained that five years ago, the organization would maybe see two of these cases in a year, but now they received fifteen requests in January 2018 alone. The clear next step for the organization is to establish an immigration strategy, which is unprecedented as the organization does not primarily deal with the issue.
While there should not need to be a separate conversation regarding disabled refugees or, in an ideal world, any refugees at all, the fact of the matter is that policies like those enacted under the Trump administration make it even more challenging for disabled persons to navigate our politically turbulent world. It is our duty as advocates to ensure that those who are disabled, either from birth or by a circumstance beyond their control, have access to a safer life on par with that of their more able-bodied peers. The Brief was thrilled to host these professionals as part of the inaugural symposium and hopes to build on the success of the event in future years.