Our Voices

RFKHR attorney, legal fellow meet with U.N. delegation on human rights violations of Black people, asylum seekers in U.S.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights staff attorney Delia Addo-Yobo, legal fellow Daniel Tse, and John Lewis Young Leader Lucina Kayee were able to meet with a United Nations delegation in May to shine a light on human rights violations against Black people in the U.S. – both American citizens and migrants seeking asylum – inflicted by those they should be able to trust: law enforcement.

It was the inaugural visit for the International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the context of Law Enforcement (EMLER) to the United States, and UN delegates traveled to Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York to meet with government officials, civil society organizations, and survivors to learn more about human rights violations by law enforcement against Africans and people of African descent.

The mechanism was created in 2021 after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota who was sentenced to 22½ years in prison for second-degree murder. Three other officers – one white, one Asian, and one Black – also have been convicted of aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder in state court and on federal charges for violating Floyd’s civil rights, according to an Associated Press report.

Tse spoke in Los Angeles at an event organized by the Nathaniel H. Pickett II Foundation Inc., Los Angeles Community Action Network, Haitian Bridge Alliance, International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Black Lives Matter, and the UN Antiracism Coalition on the plight of asylum seekers, who continue to face not just systemic racism but also excessive use of force at the hands of Customs and Border Protection.

“The human rights violations committed against Black individuals in this country are well-documented, and it is time for immediate action to be taken,” Tse told the panel. “As human rights defenders, we have witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of racial profiling and police brutality towards Black immigrants. It is clear that these practices are rooted in systemic racism and it is essential that the Expert Mechanism takes a strong stance to combat this issue.”

While Haitian and other Black immigrants comprise less than 6% of the undocumented population, they account for more than 20% of the immigrant population facing detention and deportation on criminal grounds, most often for minor criminal offenses, Tse said.

Migrants from majority Black countries are often held in remote immigration jails, isolated from their families and unable to access attorneys, he added.

He knows the conditions and abuses in these immigration detention centers are unthinkable, both from his own experience as a migrant granted asylum and as a human rights advocate who now visits detention centers to provide legal education and outreach with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

“I personally experienced egregious conditions while in immigration detention,” he said. “As human rights defenders and attorneys, we have spoken to numerous Black immigrants who have reported life-threatening medical neglect, physical beatings, pepper-spray, forced sterilization, and overt anti-Black racism. Black immigrants are six times more likely to be subjected to solitary confinement in immigration jails, a form of torture under international law.”

Tse spoke, emphatically, about what must be done to protect Black migrants in the U.S., and how EMLER can help:

  • Push the United States and other countries in the region to stop mass deportations to Haiti and other majority Black countries.

  • Extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to those already in the United States for people from Mauritania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mali.

  • Push the California State Legislature to support AB 280, a statewide ban on solitary confinement, including in immigration detention centers – a tool often used to torture Black migrants.

  • Communicate with the Biden Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, reiterating the call from the United Nations’ Committee to End Racial Discrimination to collect racial data relative to immigration enforcement. It would increase transparency and prevent racial profiling and discrimination against Black migrants.

  • Publicly oppose the new asylum ban, which disproportionately and unfairly targets Black immigrants by banning asylum for those who have traveled through a third country before reaching the U.S., violating the right to seek asylum and be united with family.

Addo-Yobo’s turn came a few days later in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on a panel about abusive solitary confinement practices in youth detention centers and emergency foster care settings, in an event organized by Atlas of Blackness, the Legal Rights Center, and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

Minnesota’s juvenile lockups have ordered kids into solitary confinement for 24 hours or longer more than 7,500 times in the last five years, data obtained by the local television station KARE 11 shows.

In 2019, nearly 60% of people sent to solitary confinement in Minnesota were Black or Native American, according to a report from the Department of Corrections to the Minnesota Legislature.

A portion of the program centered on testimonies of young people who experienced abuses in these settings, including Lucina Kayee, Executive Director of Atlas of Blackness, herself a survivor of solitary confinement.

Kayee, now an adult, was an 8-year-old with autism who had immigrated from Liberia when she was sent to a group home and, later, to the now-closed St. Joseph Home for Children. At the time, she was living with her stepfather, who was dealing with addiction issues.

When she arrived at foster care, she was forced to take off all her clothes to show she had no weapons, she told the panel. Staff members became frustrated with her because she spent two weeks refusing to speak and locked her in an empty room, Kayee said.

Her refusal to speak, though, was not a show of defiance.

“I was just an overwhelmed autistic child,” she said. She spent 10 hours, alone, in that room, until she was rescued by her favorite staff member, who was outraged when he found her there, in a room infested by mice.

She was in and out of St. Joseph until she was 11, as her stepfather struggled with addiction.

“Instead of solitary confinement, we call it ‘back to basics,’ ‘disciplinary room time’ and ‘registered seclusion rooms’,” Kayee said. “These are just more digestible ways of saying ‘solitary confinement,’ which is also a digestible way of saying torture.”

RFK Human Rights’ Delia Addo-Yobo spoke about the effects of solitary confinement on children: Within two weeks of being kept in solitary confinement, more than a third of people experience psychosis or suicidal thoughts. And those who have experienced solitary confinement are 78% more likely to attempt suicide within a year of being released from prison.

“Solitary confinement in Minnesota juvenile correctional facilities is rampant and out of control,” said Malaika Eban, interim executive director of The Legal Rights Center, a community-driven nonprofit law firm, according to an article in The Imprint. “This is not the equivalent of a time out; this is not a parent sending a child to their room. This is torture.”

U.S. Advocacy and Litigation notched an exciting victory in our work against torture in the U.S. mass incarceration system. Directly following our advocacy alongside grassroots organization Atlas of Blackness and The Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit law firm, the Minnesota legislature has unanimously passed a bipartisan bill to end juvenile solitary confinement.