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In 2019, amid a continued assault on immigrants and asylum seekers, we witnessed incredible strength and resilience from communities and allies to protect immigrant rights. Today we celebrate International Human Rights Day, commemorating the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 71 years ago, and together we're working to ensure that we, as a country and a world, uphold the values enshrined in that document. 

Here are some of the ways that we protected the human rights of immigrants and asylum seekers together this year: 

Mother holding sonSought justice for separated families

Asylum-seeking mothers and their children, represented by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and our partners, who were torn apart under the Trump administration’s family separation policy, sued the U.S. government seeking monetary compensation for the extraordinary trauma they continue to experience. NIJC provided legal services to approximately 225 children and parents forcibly separated at the border—a practice that continues.

Served more immigrants than ever before

In fiscal year 2019, the National Immigrant Justice Center provided legal services to 13,000 immigrants and asylum seekers, an historic high. More people than ever were educated about their legal rights and more families had access to lawyers to prevent deportation and detention. To meet the growing need, NIJC’s Chicago staff moved to a larger office and the organization opened new offices in Indianapolis and San Diego. NIJC expanded our pro bono network to more than 1,850 volunteer attorneys and conducted 52 trainings to equip 830 new pro bono lawyers with the resources to represent immigrants and asylum seekers.

Woman testifying at a Congressional hearingRepresented and freed transgender asylum seekers from jail

NIJC’s LGBT Immigrant Rights Initiative won relief for 57 people and represented eight transgender asylum seekers locked up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention. In September, ICE released Alejandra Barrera, a transgender Salvadoran activist detained for nearly two years, after NIJC lawyers filed a habeas petition and international advocacy spearheaded by NIJC, Amnesty International, TransLatin@ Coalition, and dozens of U.S. Congress members. NIJC is now working with the same coalition to free Kelly, a 23-year-old transgender asylum seeker who has been detained for more than two years and was held in solitary confinement for four months.

Fought the criminalization of immigrants

Through a new initiative with the Federal Defenders of San Diego, NIJC represents asylum seekers and immigrants facing criminal prosecution for entering or reentering the United States between official ports of entry or after they have been deported. NIJC also worked with allies across the country to develop marker legislation, known as the New Way Forward Act, to repeal sections of the 1996 immigration laws that result in the prosecution and imprisonment of people who come to our country seeking safety, opportunity, and freedom.

Provided free legal aid to thousands of Chicagoans

Through the Chicago Legal Protection Fund, NIJC’s Immigrant Legal Defense Project provided free legal services for low-income-Chicagoans and conducted legal screenings in every ward in the city, allowing residents to continue to build and strengthen our communities. In the first nine months of 2019, NIJC conducted more than 1,000 legal screenings and provided representation in 2,500 cases. Chicagoans who have received representation through the Fund come from 129 countries of origin, and 94% of people have won their cases (the rest are still pending).

Girl with excited look on her face and arms up in the airPrevented indefinite family detention

When the Trump administration attempted to erase rules that protect the basic rights of immigrant children in U.S. custody—a move that also would have allowed for immigrant families to be detained indefinitely—NIJC led national efforts to block the proposed policies. NIJC helped garner more than 66,000 public comments to the Federal Register and supported the litigation opposing the new rules. In September, a court invalidated the policy. We continue to advocate for the rights of immigrant children and represented children in more than 2,000 cases.

Successfully challenged abusive policies in the federal courts

In three of NIJC’s most important litigation efforts:

  1. A federal court ruled in favor of NIJC and our partners in our lawsuit challenging the original asylum ban, finding that the Trump administration cannot bar refugees from asylum because they entered the United States outside of an official border entry port. 
  2. In a landmark ruling, a federal court found that ICE's primary deportation program is unconstitutional and blocked the agency from issuing "detainer" arrest requests based on error-ridden electronic databases. 
  3. In the first two weeks of December, NIJC’s litigation team is in trial in our nationwide class-action lawsuit with pro bono partners against the government for automatically transferring young immigrants in its custody to jails on their 18th birthdays.

Passed Illinois laws protecting immigrants and children

As a member of the Campaign for a Welcoming Illinois, NIJC helped pass five state bills that increase rights and safeguards for immigrants in Illinois. Among them are two laws that provide important legal protections for immigrant children and a ban on state and local government contracting for private, for-profit immigration jails in Illinois. NIJC client Ivette’s testimony before the Illinois General Assembly about being locked up in a private immigration jail for eight months and separated from her four-year-old-son was critical in passing the private detention ban.

Child's drawing of a house with trees and hills in the backgroundShifted the narrative in favor of humane alternatives to detention

NIJC’s Detention Project provided critical legal services to hundreds of individuals locked in remote immigration jails, many of whom shared their stories publicly to expose the inhumanity of the ICE detention system. NIJC’s report, A Better Way, triggered renewed conversations on Capitol Hill about a practical way to replace immigration detention with humane community-based alternatives that already operate successfully in Chicago and around the country.


As we wrap up 2019, here's to another year of proudly defending human rights and protecting each other!


Continue fighting for human rights with us! Close out your year strong with a donation to NIJC.

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Julia Toepfer is NIJC's Senior Marketing & Digital Engagement Strategist.