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On June 29, 2018, RefLaw Writer B.A. Bacigal interviewed Hardy Vieux, vice president (Legal) at Human Rights First (HRF) about his perspective on current issues in refugee and asylum law. What follows is an edited version of that interview. The views and opinions represented are solely Hardy’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Human Rights First.
Brooke B.: Recently, there has been public outcry in the U.S. against family detention, and similar practices were enacted in Europe in response to the 2014 refugee crisis. Is there awareness of those practices abroad and how might this lead to alternatives to detention?
Hardy V.: I’m not sure that our government really cares about what’s going on abroad. We set the pace, and then a lot of other governments follow our lead down a problematic path, and not one that speaks to our best values—so that’s a problem.
Here at HRF, we constantly seek alternatives. There are ways that we can ensure someone shows up for their hearings, whether it’s a sort of check-in system, or relying on the community to give a safety net so that people who are let out of detention come back for their appointments at immigration courts. Those to us are much more viable and humane than locking up people.
We don’t see our government defaulting to alternatives. Perhaps because it is more politically palatable to say we’re locking up “wrongdoers,” and that’s the end of the narrative. But we think it’s shortsighted. We don’t have enough facilities, there’s high costs with infrastructure, it is not humane, and it doesn’t serve a deterrent value.
We still see a lot of people making their way to the border because of promise—not the promise of better economic life, but of life itself. Although these asylum seekers recognize that here they might be detained or used as pawns in political jousting, that option is better than what they fled back at home.
Brooke B.: How do you think public perception of refugees as violent or ‘flooding’ the borders plays into the validation of these policies?
Hardy V.: There’s a huge swath of this country that says, understandably, we want to protect the homeland so we can’t let people in who are going to wreak havoc and commit violence—but those are not the facts. There’s a certain group in this country that does a very good job of putting out these misstatements. Those of us who know the facts need to be better at playing offense and saying: actually a lot of these individuals that are coming here are coming because they’re fleeing persecution, it’s not for economic reasons, it’s not to cause violence.
Really, they’re just coming here because they need to flee something back there. These folks are not part of some gang or larger conspiracy. There’s power in storytelling so we need to do a better job (and we’re getting better) of telling those stories. The complete picture will show that public perceptions are far from facts; they’re concoctions and they’re divorced from the truth.
Hardy V.: Well certainly here we’re anticipating a continued effort to restrict the rights of asylum seekers, to criminalize the act of seeking asylum; to just make it harder—whether you have a domestic violence-based claim or gang-based claim—to seek relief. It emboldens a lot of others throughout the world to say “well, if the U.S. government is supposed to be the pacesetter here, and this is the pace that they are setting, then this gives authoritarian regimes or other governments the latitude to say, ‘we’ll just follow that pace.’” It is a disturbing trend, and it is one that a lot of us here are pushing back on.
Brooke B.: What are the benefits of having refugees in our country?
Hardy V.: The benefits of refugees are vast in our country; it speaks to our country’s diversity—diversity of opinions, diversity of culture. It brings economic strength; obviously the agriculture and service sectors benefit greatly from the hard work and talent of immigrants and refugees. And they give meaning to our highest aspirations, which embrace the notion that we are a country that opens its doors to welcome others—be they the Irish and Italians back in the 1800’s, or Central Americans and Middle Easterners today.
We are a part of an international community that has agreed and understood the need to take in people who have nowhere else to go; we should be living up to those commitments. This country’s legacy is certainly a complex one, but ultimately I believe that the foundations of this government in the Constitution were set in stone and made real by people from all over the world, and this restricting is fundamentally against that foundation.
Brooke B.: Could you speak to the NGO influence on refugee law and policy formation?
Hardy V.: A lot of the good work that’s happened, whether it be inside or outside of the courtroom, on the doorsteps of some state house, or the White House, a lot of that is being led by NGOs who are saying that America doesn’t have a full awareness of what’s going on and we will step into that gap.
NGOs are saying: look, regardless of our leanings, there are hard facts that are really indisputable, and we’re going to get that out there. We’re relying more on the press to help us there; they have a bigger megaphone. The Washington Post can write an article that more people will read and have access to than a small NGO can put out. We’ve always had those facts, but we’re recognizing that we can’t just use our blogs or our press releases. We have to fully engage the journalism community to get those facts out there.
Traditional asylum seeker organizations have also stepped up to rally those who are normally at the margins of society and give those communities a voice; and to fashion practical ideas that can be implemented on the policy level and to put those forward in front of Congress, states, and localities. We’re engaging those government entities and giving them blueprints of how to work. Finally, we’re also naming and shaming when we have to. We’re rallying and decrying policies that are inhumane or frankly unlawful. The NGO community is playing a significant role in this time.
Brooke B.: Where do you see the future of international refugee law?
Hardy V.: There are these norms that the international community has acceded to and the United States government has as well, and I’d like us not to ignore those. I’m hoping that we’ll find ways to strengthen the protections for refugees outside their countries. We need to do more of that because countries like the U.S. say “that seems aspirational and it’s not ours, right? It’s somebody else’s aspiration.”
We’re spending a lot of time looking at Article 31 of the 1951 Convention. Specifically, that Article speaks to the non-penalization of asylum seekers. We have a situation where the United States government is using a federal criminal statute to criminalize those who have, in the government’s opinion, unlawfully entered the country. We’ve always wondered and continue to try to suss out whether that federal statute conflicts with Article 31, and if so, does Article 31 create a substantive actionable right in a federal court in the United States of America?
I’d like us to find ways to start embracing international norms in our courts. I think our predilection is often to say that’s not actionable here, so the challenge of the day for a lot of us in domestic federal courts is to find creative ways to make those principles a reality.
 Bacigal is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan studying Public Policy and English, intending to pursue law. Her primary area of focus is international refugee law and policy. Outside of school she is involved in the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program, and co-founded [RE]vive, a refugee education initiative to create resources and conduct workshops for refugee students abroad– her team conducted the first iteration of workshops in Istanbul, Turkey this past August.
Suggested citation: Interview by B.A. Bacigal with Hardy Vieux, Vice President (Legal), Human Rights First (Jun. 29, 2018).