If you see yellow-vested workers walking around your neighborhood knocking on doors, don’t call the police. That’s not a scammer or someone attempting a home invasion – those are Amnesty International volunteers fighting against the growing immigrant detention happening right here in Louisiana.
When I think of Amnesty International, I tend to picture people working to stop human rights abuses happening in faraway places that I’ve never seen. While I intellectually knew that they were active in the United States, fighting the death penalty and working for women to have control over their own bodies, those are things I imagined happening in government offices and Washington D.C., not local neighborhoods. So it was something of a shock a few weeks ago when I stepped out onto my porch to find yellow-vested canvassers knocking on doors in my neighborhood. This being me, I immediately pulled up my phone’s recording app, explained who I am, and asked permission to interview them. They were delighted to oblige me.
Amnesty International, for those who don’t know, is a global volunteer network advocating, fighting for, and protecting human rights around the world. Their story began when British lawyer Peter Benenson wrote an appeal titled “The Forgotten Prisoners” about two Portuguese students who had been jailed for toasting freedom. The response was overwhelming. The letter was reprinted all over the world and resulted in thousands of people writing to government leaders on the students’ behalf. And so, Amnesty International was born.
The group has had activists mobilized in force in the United States since 2017 in an attempt to hold President Donald Trump’s administration accountable for their myriad human rights abuses. On April 4, 2017, the group published an article titled, “100 Ways Trump Has Threatened Human Rights In First 100 Days,” and it reads like a work of dystopian fiction. Among the abuses:
- Closing borders and shutting the door to refugees – according to Amnesty this has resulted in a domino effect on refugee admissions around the world, leaving some of the world’s most vulnerable people at greater risk.
- Perpetuating a climate of hate-based harassment and violence against Muslim, Jewish, LGBT, and other communities
- Emboldening and arming human rights abusers like Turkey, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and more
- Expanding conflict and driving up the number of civilian casualties in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and more
- Supporting torture by reinstating CIA black sites, continued indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, spreading fear and misinformation, and more
- Violating the rights of indigenous peoples at Standing Rock
- Dismantling women’s rights and reproductive freedoms
- Constant attacks on the rights of free speech and freedom of the press
- Rolling back critical human rights protections
Of course, the most obvious result of the above violations has been the jailing of legal asylum seekers and refugees, a policy of child separation, and the indefinite detention of migrant children. It was these that the canvassers in my neighborhood were seeking to address. They are a part of Amnesty International’s “I Welcome Refugee Campaign,” which does two things: raises awareness regarding the local impacts of Trump’s policies, and works to make policy changes right here in Louisiana.
According to the women I spoke with, there are currently six for-profit prisons in Louisiana that are housing migrant detainees because the state’s three U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers (in Alexandria, Pine Prairie, and Jena) in the state are full, and the state is seeking to onboard two more.
There is virtually no reason to hold these men, women, and children, the majority of whom are legal asylum seekers. Ninety percent of asylum seekers in the U.S. show up to their mandated court date – the current administration’s policy is intentionally overly cruel in an attempt to deter more immigrants from seeking protection within U.S. borders. As noted by Louisiana State House of Representatives candidate Ravi Sangisetty, Louisiana is now on track to once again lead the nation in the number of incarcerated people in the state – a number than had been dropping since the criminal justice reforms of 2017. There are now an average of 5,450 immigrant detainees being held in the state at a cost of $354,250 in federal tax dollars.
Here in New Orleans, a small team of 16 Amnesty International volunteers canvases the city every day attempting to raise awareness of this issue. In addition, any donations they collect go directly towards supporting the medical and legal needs of immigrant detainees. Their goal is to speak to a minimum of 100 people every day – but they would love for that number to grow. If you’re interested in volunteering, there are options to participate in small actions, volunteer as a canvasser, help with social media campaigns and more on their website.
Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and editor currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of Big Easy Magazine. Her work has also been featured in publications such as Wander N.O. More, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_