#ChangeLawyer I’m a law student and I fight for asylum seekers who look like me
KANWALROOP KAUR SINGH is a Sikh writer, soon-to-be lawyer, and ChangeLawyers scholar. The daughter of immigrants, she was born in California but her roots lie on both the Pakistan and India sides of modern-day Punjab. Currently, she is pursuing her JD at UCLA School of Law.
My first year in law school I visit an immigrant detention facility in Calexico, on the California-Mexico border. The desert heat is unrelenting, like the border itself. The Joshua trees stand against the empty blue sky. The sun beats down and the sweat drips slow. Men cry here. Their big brown eyes are full of questions.
I am with a group of Sikh American community members. We are united by the fact that we look like those we visit, although we do not share their fate. We sing hymns of resilience with our detained brothers and sisters. We speak words of encouragement. We sit together, cry together, and hug one another. Behind the barbed wire of the detention center, the border is visible, a permanent stain upon the earth. I feel the border divides me. Had my parents never made it across, I could have been one of the detained: risking my life to travel miles and miles, jailed in an imperialist nation, beholden to the first-world masters of my fate.
A Sikh priest who accompanies us on the visit tells us that, a week earlier, a Sikh boy’s body was found at the bottom of a nearby river. That is when I feel the heat burn my back.
Everything I do is precedent. Those who look like me have not done this before. I tie my turban, and it hugs me like armor. Every day, on my way to law school, I walk past brick buildings the color of bloodstains, feeling shaken by the act of studying a legal system based upon British common law: I am the descendant of people colonized by an Empire that weaponized this very system of law against us. They used it to maim and mangle us into lesser versions of ourselves.
One hundred years ago, Sikhs in California studied, farmed, sang, prayed, and organized an anti-colonial movement into existence. They sought to break the chains of the British colonization of South Asia. They were charged with sedition and deported by US law, then imprisoned and hanged by British law. One hundred years later, at UCLA, I stand on illegally occupied Tongva land, learning to use the same legal weapons once used to justify the murder of my ancestors, and the ancestors of my indigenous classmates. Our presence in law school must be anti-colonial struggle, and we, like our ancestors, are subversive to survive.
FCI Victorville II – ICE is built on a toxic waste dump, a site that has been known to cause cancer and birth defects for the population that inhabits it. Like most prisons in California, Victorville is in the middle of nowhere. It was meant to be a federal prison, not an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, but ICE needed some place to house the thousands they could not tolerate at our borders. When we visit Victorville, we must put our phones in ice boxes so that they won’t be damaged by the scorching heat.
Inside the facility, we must wait for about four hours before we are allowed to see clients. During that four-hour wait, two groups of detainees are transferred from the facility to unknown locations. We are told to remain in the visitor waiting room with the door locked. When we get right up close to the windows and peek through, we see brown and black feet shuffling by in orange clogs, chained together by steel. They are slow, heavy, resigned, a cruel picture of the system.
“How can this be your law?” they have asked us. I have no answer.
Read the story on Asian American Writers Workshop >
Al Otro Lado is a ChangeLawyers Fellowship recipient. They provide cross border legal help to deportees, refugees, and families separated by deportation.
Watch This The lawsuit that could stop the US Government from supporting fossil fuels
Of all the cases working their way through the federal court system none is more interesting or potentially more life changing than Juliana v. United States. To quote one federal judge, "This is no ordinary lawsuit." It was filed back in 2015 on behalf of a group of kids who are trying to get the courts to block the U.S. government from continuing the use of fossil fuels. They say it's causing climate change, endangering their future and violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. When the lawsuit began hardly anyone took it seriously, including the government's lawyers, who have since watched the Supreme Court reject two of their motions to delay or dismiss the case. Four years in, it is still very much alive, in part because the plaintiffs have amassed a body of evidence that will surprise even the skeptics and have forced the government to admit that the crisis is real.
Watch on 60 Minutes >
More of This New SCOTUS ruling is a game changer for young people of color
The following editorial was written by Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of the Juvenile Law Center and Clarise McCants, campaign director of criminal justice for Color of Change.
The Supreme Court unanimously held last week that the constitutional right to be free of excessive fines applies to the states. While the case addressed fees, fines and civil asset forfeiture among adults, it also has significant implications for youth in the juvenile justice system.
Across the country, youth — particularly black and brown youth — are doubly punished with court and justice related fines and fees in addition to involvement in the juvenile justice system. Youth and families who cannot pay the fees face extended probation, denial of services and sometimes even incarceration. Familiesgo into debt or may have to choose between paying court fees or paying for groceries.
It’s time to eliminate juvenile fines and fees, and the court's ruling gives us a new opportunity to challenge their constitutionality.
As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her decision, the problem can be particularly severe because states may impose fines not just for punishment but also as a “source of revenue.”
One young person likened the experience of facing fines to "drowning" while people just keep "pouring more water in the pool." A civil rights attorney shared that as a teenager, he sold drugs just to pay off his juvenile justice fees. A grandmother said she wasurged to give up custody of her grandchild to free herself of the economic burden of his court debt.
In 2015, when the Department of Justice examined fines and fees in the adult criminal justice system in Ferguson, Missouri, they quickly realized that bias was at play. In fact, fines and fees contribute to a devastating system of racial and social control.
Michelle Alexander, a civil rights author, has laid the problem bare: If you’re poor and black, selling CDs or loose cigarettes can lead to fines, an arrest or even death, while the wealthy can bankrupt millions without even a slap on the wrist.
That the problem starts in childhood makes it even more troubling. Black and brown youth are more likely to attend highly policed schools than their white peers. Ironically, this may make schools less safe and learning more difficult. It not only pulls resources from educators and counselors, but also leads to greater arrest rates.
Once in juvenile court, black and brown youth are more likely than their white peers to be adjudicated delinquent, placed outside the home, and transferred to adult court for the same behavior.
As a result, not only are children of color at a heightened risk of family separation and incarceration, but their families also pay more in fees, including court fees, public defender fees, probation fees, placement costs and other financial obligations associated with the justice system. Youth and their families are being doubly punished and doubly taxed. And the problem doesn’t stop there. Unpaid fees can also lead to increased or repeated contact with the justice system, exacerbating the disparities further.
The tie between fines, the justice system and racial oppression isn’t a new one. In fact, Ginsburg recognized the history of fines in racial discrimination and state-enforced white supremacy. “Following the Civil War,” she explained, “Southern states enacted Black Codes to subjugate newly freed slaves and maintain the prewar racial hierarchy. Among these laws’ provisions were draconian fines for violating broad proscriptions on 'vagrancy' and other dubious offenses. ... When newly freed slaves were unable to pay imposed fines, states often demanded involuntary labor instead.”
The juvenile justice system has a similarly problematic history. It is portrayed as rehabilitative, but it has been used decade after decade to disproportionately police, control and punish black and brown youth by locking them up for normative adolescent behavior and then sending their families the bill.
The country should follow the lead of jurisdictions that have recently passed much needed policy reforms. In 2015, Washington state passed the YEAR Act that eliminated numerous juvenile fees, and California followed in 2017 with a bill that even more comprehensively eliminated juvenile fines and fees.
Our children deserve access to a system that treats them fairly regardless of the color of their skin or the wealth of their families.
Read the story on USA Today
Less of This Two recent opinions by Justice Thomas should alarm us all
The following editorial was written by Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law.
Twice in the last two weeks, Justice Clarence Thomas has written alarming opinions that call into question fundamental constitutional protections. In one, he disputed the right to counsel for those accused of crimes; in the other he called for revisiting fundamental press freedoms established more than 50 years ago.
Although these views are still in the minority on the court, Thomas’ opinions help legitimize what would be a radical undermining of essential rights.
Few Supreme Court decisions are more central to our criminal justice system than the 1963 ruling in Gideon vs. Wainwright, which held that a person being tried in state court and facing a possible prison sentence has the right to state-appointed legal counsel.
That guarantee was the logical culmination of a series of decisions beginning in the late 19th century that applied the provisions of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments, not just to the federal government.
In 1932, in Powell vs. Alabama, the court held that criminal defendants being tried for capital crimes in state court have the right to an attorney. It then took three more decades, in Gideon, for the court to extend that right to all cases in which there is a possible prison sentence. In Gideon, the court declared that “reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”
I never have heard anyone question the court’s decision in Gideon, though many believe that not enough has been done to make its promise a reality. Now, however, in the case of Garza vs. Idaho, Thomas has said he thinks Gideon was wrong.
In his dissenting opinion on Feb. 27, he wrote that the 6th Amendment “as originally understood and ratified meant only that a defendant had a right to employ counsel, or to use volunteered services of counsel.” Thomas said that the Supreme Court has expanded that concept to include a right to effective counsel — a reading that “little available evidence” supports “as an original matter.”
Under Thomas’ view, there is no constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases in state court, even in capital cases or when there could be a life sentence. It is a chilling view of criminal justice, yet two other justices, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito, agreed with that reasoning and joined all or part of his dissent.
Thomas’ other disturbing reasoning came in an opinion concurring in the denial of Supreme Court review of a defamation case brought against Bill Cosby by one of his accusers. In his opinion, thankfully not joined by any other justice, he called into question what is generally regarded as the most important freedom of speech decision in American history: New York Times vs. Sullivan.
Read the story on LA Times >
Less of This Too Why do DAs keep undermining California law?
A lot of time has passed since the 1990s, when politicians, pundits and even academics began whipping up public frenzy over a supposed generation of juvenile “super-predators,” bereft of normal human values, running in packs and preying on law-abiding citizens. Back then, California lawmakers passed a series of punitive bills that ensured young offenders were treated, if not quite like wild animals, at least like irredeemable adult career criminals.
A bill signed into law in 1994 allowed minors as young as 14 and 15 to be tried in adult court for the most serious crimes and to be penalized with adult sentences, including life in prison. Voters followed up in 2000 with Proposition 21, which allowed prosecutors on their own, without sign-off from juvenile court judges, to file criminal charges against many teenagers directly in adult criminal court. District attorneys drove much of the tough-on-juveniles movement, largely because of their penchant for measuring their success by the severity of the sentences they obtained in court.
It took a while, but the frenzy died down. There had indeed been a crime increase, but Californians saw that it had been exaggerated, that it had already begun falling before laws were toughened and that the hyper-punitive reaction had been reserved mostly for African American and Latino suspects.
Voters scrapped Proposition 21 two years ago by adopting Proposition 57 and returning the state to its previous, more just and more sober system in which judges, not prosecutors, decide whether teenagers should be tried as juveniles or as adults. Even most district attorneys acknowledged that they ought to give that discretion back to judges.
And last year, lawmakers passed, and the governor signed, SB 1391, which rolled back the 1994 law and once again set the low-end age limit for possible adult prosecution at 16, rather than 14.
It would seem that most Californians had collectively recovered their senses.
But not all of them. Elected district attorneys around the state still want to send some 14- and 15-year-olds to adult court on adult charges to face adult sentences — despite the fact that science tells us young teenagers’ brains are still developing and that they aren’t yet capable of adult-level judgment and moral reckoning. Furthermore, they are more likely than adults to change their ways when offered constructive rehabilitation programs.
Having lost their argument during the legislative process last year, prosecutors are challenging SB 1391 in court on the claim that it somehow violates the will of voters. They assert that because voters passed Proposition 57, that measure covers the gamut of juvenile charging laws and cannot be supplemented by legislation.
That makes little sense. Voters adopted “direct filing” in adult court by prosecutors and then threw it out with Proposition 57. Lawmakers lowered the age limit and then raised it again. The two issues — the one addressed by voters and the other by the Legislature — are completely different. A majority of the California trial courts that have been asked to consider prosecutors’ arguments to the contrary have rejected them.
Read the story on LA Times >
Dessert A criminal justice lawyer reviews “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Gina Clayton-Johnson is a lawyer and executive director of the Essie Justice Group, which she founded (and named after her great grandmother) in 2014 to harness the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones to end mass incarceration’s harm to women and communities.
I have looked through a glass at someone I love. I know what it’s like to have to learn the prison system inside and out, to give of my time, heart and resources, and to say “I am with you.” Just like Tish in the film If Beale Street Could Talk, I am one of the 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 2 black women, in the U.S. who has an incarcerated loved one.
In Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed and award-winning adaptation of James Baldwin’s book, we witness the raw, beautifully poignant and genuine love between two people, Tish and Fonny, as they navigate the racist systems and societal realities of 1970s Harlem. Their future and dreams are suddenly put on hold when Fonny is falsely accused and imprisoned for rape. Looking at him through a glass, Tish joyfully reveals she is pregnant with their child, and promises she “will get him out of there.” ‘She’ takes the form of Tish, her mom and sister as they battle through a legal system that continues to fail them, struggle to come up with financial resources, and prepare for the imminent arrival of an addition to their family.
Through the film, we gain a glimpse into the relentless fight, unconditional love, and advocacy shown by women fighting the criminal legal system on behalf of their loved ones in the United States. Even though the film is set in the 1970s, it reflects a reality that millions of women know all too well today: In the age of mass incarceration, it is women who are directly bearing the consequences of 40 years of bad criminal justice policy — carrying heavy financial, mental and physical health burdens as a result. In fact, the prospects of all women, and black and brown women in particular, continue to be undermined by mass incarceration — a patriarchal system of punishment and control that violently enforces white supremacy. It is long overdue that we ask ourselves: is our attachment to cages, surveillance and state-inflicted harm one of the greatest barriers to gender justice today?
Even as the country’s overall incarceration rate declines, the women’s incarceration rate remains at a record high, far outpacing men’s. Today, the United States accounts for over 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women, despite the fact that only 4 percent of the world’s female population lives in the U.S. One in 18 black women will be incarcerated in her lifetime, and a staggering 47 percent of all black transgender women will be incarcerated. While incarcerated, women experience gender-specific forms of violence and trauma that can include denial of necessary medical care, shackling while giving birth, and sexual violence. In innumerable ways — from the rapidly increasing incarceration of women, to the gendered violence and criminalization that trans women, queer women, and gender non-conforming people face — we are witnessing mass incarceration’s full-frontal attack on women’s lives.
The Essie Justice Group’s recent report reveals the direct and dire consequences of mass incarceration on women with incarcerated loved ones who, like Tish, are left to bear the physical, emotional, and financial toll of the criminal legal system. Through our research, we now know that over 63 percent of women feel their physical health impacted due to a loved one’s incarceration, with 86 percent describing the emotional toll as “significant” or “extreme.” Of the women we surveyed, nearly 70 percent with an incarcerated loved one are their family’s only wage earner. And, we know that while trying to advocate for and protect those that we love, it is women who continue to feel a great sense of social isolation, with compounding mental, physical and economic health impacts.
Tish is one woman, but she represents hundreds of thousands of women that have had our voices silenced, our spirits beaten down, and our will tested. As Tish takes us through the facts of Fonny’s arrest and whereabouts during the alleged rape, her testimony falls on deaf ears — the only word that matters is that of a white police officer, the face of the unjust and biased system. While taking care of herself during her pregnancy, and being the primary source of emotional support for Fonny, she works at a perfume counter to feed the very legal system that thrives on putting black bodies in cages. Even through these moments, Tish is one of the lucky ones and is not alone; she is supported by family and women who grieve with her, hold her up, and fight alongside her.
Read the story on Deadline
Watch this One Woman Show
When Irma Herrera gives her name its correct Spanish pronunciation, some people assume she’s a foreigner. She’s not. Irma proudly claims her Tejano roots and her Mexican and American identity as well as her native languages: Spanish and English. Irma worked three decades as a San Francisco civil rights lawyer and journalist. Her solo play Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? sheds light and throws shade on our prejudices and assumptions.
Tickets here >
Work for Community Water Center
With support from California ChangeLawyers, CWC seeks a full-time, year-long Legal Fellow to provide legal assistance to communities without safe water and local water board members; create and update resources for community members and legal practitioners regarding drinking water governance and advocacy; and provide legal and advocacy support for other CWC programs as needed.
Apply here >
Work for Root & Rebound
OAKLAND -- DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT: Root & Rebound seeks a driven, experienced, and entrepreneurial Director of Development to join our senior management team. Apply here >
SAN BERNARDINO-- ATTORNEY:R&R is thrilled to be hiring a Reentry Attorney for the Rights, Equity and Law (R.E.A.L. Project)who will be based at the Time for Change Foundation (TFCF) in San Bernardino, to help formerly incarcerated women and their children and families navigate and overcome legal barriers stemming from past criminal justice system involvement. Apply here >
Sponsor/Host LGBTQ+ Asylum Seekers
Regrettably, LGBTQ+ individuals who are fleeing persecution, violence, and discrimination in their countries of origin present themselves at the United States border, only to be detained indefinitely in traumatizing, neglectful conditions for the duration of their asylum proceedings.
The Santa Fe Dreamers Project, in conjunction with Diversidad Sin Fronteras, Freedom for Immigrants, and other immigration and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups are actively seeking and training individuals willing to act as sponsors, hosts and members of Community Support Networks these asylum-seekers. Sponsors and hosts help by providing free housing and support to asylum seekers who identify as LGBTQ+.
Sign up here >
Event Alert: 17th Cruz Reynoso Fellowship Gala
Berkeley Law La Raza Students Association is delighted to invite you to the 17th Annual Honorable Cruz Reynoso Fellowship Gala.
Each year, we award summer scholarships to promising La Raza law students pursuing social justice internships or judicial externships. These fellowships were created to support our dedicated Raza members in their efforts to provide culturally competent legal services to underserved communities and to advance their legal career. Through these scholarships, we aim to increase diversity in the legal field, and legal services to the Latinx community.
April 5 from 6 to 11:00 PM. Tickets here >
Event Alert: 37th Annual Lorenzo Patiño Banquet
The Lorenzo Patiño Banquet is a public service awards ceremony and scholarship fundraiser named in memory of Judge Lorenzo Patiño. Keynote by Eden Jequinto of Transgender Law Center.
March 16 from 5 to 9:30 PM. Tickets here >