Our Voices

RFK Human Rights celebrates one-year anniversary of Rapid Defense Network

On July 19 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFKHR) celebrated the one-year anniversary of the integration of Rapid Defense Network (RDN) and its co-founder, Sarah Gillman, into the RFKHR family. Gillman now serves as RFKHR’s Director of Strategic U.S. Litigation. Her extensive experience in litigating for immigrants’ rights is a cornerstone of the U.S. Advocacy and Litigation team’s efforts to reduce the size, scope, and power of mass incarceration in the United States by fighting racial discrimination, torture and other inhumane treatment, and police and prison killings in the criminal and immigration systems.

The celebratory event at The Glass Ceiling in New York City kicked off with introductory remarks by Kerry Kennedy, President of RFK Human Rights. It continued with a panel discussion moderated by Anthony Enriquez, Vice President of the U.S. Advocacy and Litigation team, and featuring Daniel Tse, an RFKHR legal fellow who successfully argued his own asylum case from immigration detention and now works under Gillman’s guidance to litigate cases that seek accountability for racial discrimination in the U.S. immigration system. The discussion highlighted Gillman’s impact both within RFKHR and on the lives of her clients, including additional panel members Mr. A and his daughter, S, their names redacted for privacy purposes.

In 2019, Mr. A was arrested without warning at a routine check-in with immigration officials, deprived of the opportunity to speak to a judge. Immigration officials took him to an airport for deportation, holding him face down in shackles against the ground in an attempt to terrify him into submission. Speaking on behalf of her father, S shared how she felt “helpless” when Mr. A was taken from their family. S “knew she had to take matters into her own hands,” and, together with her sister, reached out to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who then turned to Sarah and RDN for legal help.

Filing an emergency habeas petition, RDN was able to prevent Mr. A’s deportation and secure his release back to his family. Several weeks later, with RDN’s support, S testified about their family’s traumatic experience before the New York City Council. Their activism played a key role in Mr. A’s ongoing fight to remain with his family in the United States.

“Sarah has become a very special person to me,” said S. “Her work with my father showed me how genuine people can be.” Gillman said of the victory that “recognizing the human being in the midst of it all, and presenting that in the case . . . made all the difference.”

Since joining forces, Gillman and Enriquez have transformed the program to include a substantial U.S. federal court docket of approximately 20 cases. RFKHR now represents clients in administrative, trial, and appellate courts whose cases carry the potential to enact structural change in the criminal and immigration legal systems. In one such case, Davis v. Garland, RFKHR secured a federal court order declaring U.S. constitutional protections against prolonged immigration detention.

Mr. Davis, a man of Jamaican descent with a good-faith claim to U.S. citizenship, had been imprisoned in an immigration detention center for over 3 years. In court, the government claimed the power to indefinitely detain him without any type of hearing before a judge to justify his ongoing imprisonment. But the court agreed with RFKHR that Mr. Davis had a constitutional right to due process that required the government to prove the need for ongoing detention before a neutral decision maker. “This win is monumental for us,” said Gillman, “because we can now use this precedent to argue against the wrongful detention of other individuals.” In a second victorious case challenging indefinite detention, Cenesca v. Brophy, another federal court followed the same reasoning, emphasizing the punitive conditions of immigration detention that RFKHR attorneys had highlighted, including prolonged solitary confinement.

The U.S. Advocacy and Litigation program uses a uniquely comprehensive approach to fight for structural change in the criminal and immigration legal systems, Gillman said. Partnering with human rights defenders and activists in grassroots campaigns for change, it pursues four key tactics. The program educates individuals on their rights and how to fight for them, documents abuses in human rights reporting for use in grassroots-led advocacy, exposes the systemic nature of repeated human rights abuses, and litigates for accountability through systemic change. By grounding its work on a person in need instead of a predetermined legal issue, the program centers the human being at the center of the human rights issues it presents to courts. In this way, victory in a case achieves both individual justice and systemic reform. And where U.S. courts fail to deliver justice, the program also appeals to international bodies like the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to create change domestically.

In February, the team appealed to international legal bodies to notch an important victory against torture in the U.S. criminal legal system. Following a petition to the United Nations’ International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice in the Context of Law Enforcement (EMLER), staff attorney Delia Addo-Yobo prepared grassroots activists of End Youth Prisons and Atlas of Blackness to testify before EMLER in Minnesota about the horrors of juvenile solitary confinement. According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, “Solitary confinement, when used for the purpose of punishment, cannot be justified for any reason, precisely because it imposes severe mental pain and suffering beyond any reasonable retribution for criminal behaviour.” Just weeks after the activists’ testimony before the U.N. delegation to Minnesota, Governor Walz signed into law a ban of solitary confinement as punishment for youths in juvenile detention centers.

Currently, the U.S. Advocacy and Litigation team’s docket consists of cases at various stages in the legal process, from investigatory work, to trial, to appeal. The team continues to find new clients in need of assistance through regular visits to isolated immigration detention centers throughout the country and through partnership with activists against police violence in the U.S. south.