International Human Rights Law Clinic

In an era of rapid change caused by rising global interdependence, the International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) at the UC Berkeley School of Law pursues a dual mission: promoting justice at home and abroad and training attorneys for a changing profession. IHRLC marshals the resources of the faculty and students of UC Berkeley to advance the struggle for human rights on behalf of individuals and marginalized communities. It clarifies complex issues, develops innovative policy solutions, and engages in vigorous advocacy. At the same time, IHRLC prepares graduates for an increasingly diverse, competitive, and international legal profession. One of the leading human rights clinics in the country, IHRLC takes advantage of its home in California, the largest and most diverse state in the nation, and builds on Berkeley Law’s commitment to international engagement. Since 1998, IHRLC has completed dozens of projects and trained over 200 students. Learn about the latest clinic news below or read our publications.



Border Patrol: Clinic Provides Legal Roadmap for Families of Those Killed by Federal Agents

Roxanna Altholz ’99
Roxanna Altholz ’99

By Andrew Cohen

Since 2010, United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have killed at least 40 people along the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite claims that unlawful use of deadly force caused many of the killings, efforts to gain redress through the legal system have largely proven futile.

That’s why Alliance San Diego founding executive director Andrea Guerrero ’99 contacted her Berkeley Law classmate—International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) Associate Director Roxanna Altholz ’99—to help untangle the legal complexities for those pursuing justice.

“We’re facing different kinds of law in multiple jurisdictions along the border,” Guerrero said. “Federal law, civil law, criminal law, international law—there are many permutations for what victims’ family members can do. I already knew about the clinic’s amazing work and Roxanna’s experience in international courts, so I contacted her to see if she could help.”

The result of their collaboration is a new report that identifies the remedies available—in the U.S. and Mexico—and provides a needed legal roadmap. It will be an instructive guide for the Southern Border Communities Coalition, a group of 60-plus organizations from California to Texas co-chaired by Guerrero.

The nation’s largest law enforcement agency, CBP is authorized to apprehend people suspected of violating immigration laws—which are civil laws, not criminal laws—within 100 miles of the border. Since 9/11, Congress has more than doubled its budget and increased its access to surveillance equipment, weaponry, and technology. While a few cases of CBP killings have settled, no plaintiff has won a wrongful death case against a border agent in civil court.

Andrea Guerrero '99
Andrea Guerrero ’99

“It’s important for advocates, victims, and litigators to understand the legal landscape,” Altholz said. “Prosecutors haven’t charged a single agent in one of these incidents in five years although the victims include some U.S. citizens, several minors, people shot in the back, and people shot in vehicles driving away. A border patrol agent shot one victim, a 16-year-old boy walking on a street in Mexico parallel to the border fence, several times in the back.”

Co-written by recent IHRLC student Yasmin Emrani ’15, the report probes three main scenarios: foreign nationals killed in Mexico, foreign nationals killed in the U.S., and American citizens killed in the U.S. It also analyzes trends in civil and criminal cases in the U.S. and Mexico.

“These agents have used force against people in unwarranted ways with no accountability,” Emrani said. “We gathered all the cases, looked at all the claims raised, tracked how each case moved through the courts, and produced a big-picture analysis. It’s a flow chart of sorts to determine the best legal strategy depending on the variables involved.”

An uphill fight

Over the years, victims’ relatives have struggled to gain information about the circumstances of killings and the identities of those responsible. They seek accountability through criminal investigation and prosecution, economic compensation, and policy reforms to prevent future killings.

“In the 100-year history of our border patrol agency, no agent has ever been successfully tried or held accountable in a court of law,” said Guerrero. “This should worry all of us if the largest law enforcement agency in the country is acting with impunity.”

Yasmin Emrani ’15
Yasmin Emrani ’15

U.S. courts routinely dismiss civil lawsuits, ruling that the agent’s actions constituted a reasonable use of force or an act of self-defense. They have also used legal doctrines such as sovereign immunity and extra-territoriality to quash legal claims.

“If a private citizen shot a Mexican minor standing on Mexican territory, that person would be held to account,” Altholz said. “But a federal officer who does the same thing is not. CBP describes itself as a paramilitary organization. They’ve refused to wear body cameras while many local police do. They’ve also refused to release the names of agents involved in these killings, though local law enforcement does that as policy. It’s time to level the playing field.”

With the recent national firestorm surrounding police violence against people of color, there is mounting legal pressure to hold CBP agents accountable. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering hearing a case about the death of Sergio Adrian Hernández Guereco, a Mexican teenager killed in Mexico by a CBP agent shooting across the border. Investigations prompted by the Obama Administration, members of Congress, and border community advocates also triggered a new CBP use of force policy—and the first publication of such a policy—last year.

“That was a major accomplishment,” Emrani said. “Under the old policy, agents could use deadly force against people throwing rocks across the border or unarmed occupants of moving vehicles, but no longer.”

The report uses civil and criminal court records, legal scholarship, and reports by government agencies, media, and advocacy groups. It also explores the basis for filing legal actions in both the U.S. and Mexico and assesses the likelihood for success.  

“This will empower families and advocates to negotiate with prosecutors and open up new avenues in the international courts,” Guerrero said. “The report is a game changer for us and arms families with information that’s critical to their ability to seek justice.”


The Dominican Republic Must Stop Expulsions of Haitians

A HUMAN rights crisis is unfolding on the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti.  

The Dominican Republic is threatening to drive out hundreds of thousands of Haitians who live and work in the Dominican Republic. Many of them came to work in the sugar, construction and tourism industries.

Recently, the Dominican Republic demanded that they come forward and register for legal residency or be forced to return to Haiti. Of an estimated 450,000 Haitian migrants in the country, some 290,000 filed by the deadline to register, June 17 (which reportedly has been extended). But so far, less than 2 percent of them have been granted legal status. Although the country’s threat to deport Haitians en masse hasn’t yet materialized, many workers have already fled to Haiti; the Dominican Republic recently put the number at about 30,000.

These migrants are not the only ones who face an uncertain future in the Dominican Republic.

Tens of thousands of Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, whose parents or grandparents had crossed the border for economic opportunities, live in legal limbo. Until 2010, the Constitution ostensibly granted citizenship to anyone born in the country. But many Dominicans were excluded because their parents were deemed to have been “in transit” at the time of their birth. Moreover, the authorities routinely denied papers and ID cards to Dominicans of Haitian descent without justification, often on the basis of their French or Creole surnames or their skin complexion. As a result, these people — along with Haitian migrant workers — have lived in constant fear of arbitrary expulsion to Haiti.

The government has denied that it discriminates against Haitian migrants or Dominicans of Haitian descent. It even says that the recent registration process was a success. These claims are not to be believed.

Over 10 years ago, on behalf of two girls of Haitian descent, we sued the Dominican Republic in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, challenging the onerous and expensive requirements Haitian parents who sought to obtain birth certificates for their Dominican-born children faced. Without these papers, the children couldn’t attend public school, marry, own property or vote.

In 2005, the court ordered the Dominican government to recognize the nationality of these children and to seek out and issue birth certificates to all such children. But the country has barely complied.

Almost immediately after the decision, a small group of racist, ultranationalist politicians orchestrated an aggressive campaign against the ruling. The legislature amended the Constitution in 2010 to exclude children of undocumented migrants from citizenship. A court retroactively stripped citizenship from people of Haitian descent, going back to the 1930s.

After an outcry, the government backtracked. To save face, it created a plan to restore citizenship to those who had been stripped of it, and to gradually legalize Haitian migrants who had made their lives in the Dominican Republic.

But then the government sabotaged its own plan by demanding that poor migrants — who might earn under $11 a day in the informal economy — furnish documents like pay stubs, letters of employment or proof of homeownership in order to obtain residency papers.

Dominican Republic has a long, brutal history of mass expulsions of Haitians. In 1937, the dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of tens of thousands of them. The word in Santo Domingo now is that the government is about to deport Haitians — and those who look Haitian — en masse. Past roundups have been conducted under the cover of night. People were thrust out of their beds, without time to collect their belongings or show what papers they had. Parents were separated from their children, wives from their husbands, citizens from their homeland.

Yes, the Dominican Republic is a developing country, and not the only nation that mistreats migrants and stateless people. But for decades, Haitians and their progeny have served as a scapegoat for Dominican politicians who blame them for poverty, disease and crime.

The Dominican Republic should put a halt to the sporadic roundups and summary expulsions. If it doesn’t, the international community must step in.

The United Nations and the Organization of American States should request that international monitors be stationed along the border and in detention centers to deter human rights abuses. If the Dominicans balk, they should be shunned at international forums. The United States, which gave about $30 million in aid to the Dominican Republic in 2012, must help prevent a humanitarian disaster.



New IHRLC Report Highlights Challenges for Undocumented Students at UC Berkeley

May 6, 2015 – Hunger, fear of deportation, and ineligibility for federal student loans are not the typical concerns of U.S. college students. But these complex issues shape the experience of undocumented students at UC Berkeley, according to a new International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) report. The study, “DREAMers at Cal: The Impact of Immigration Status on Undocumented Students at the University of California at Berkeley” provides data and recommendations to university, state, and federal officials seeking to support the success of undocumented students in higher education.

ihrlc_dreamer_coverBased on surveys and interviews conducted with undocumented students on the UC Berkeley campus, the report explores how undocumented status impacts students’ path to higher education, university experience, and plans for the future. IHRLC conducted the study after establishing the nation’s first on-campus legal support program for undocumented students in 2012. IHRLC Clinical Instructor Allison Davenport directed the research project and oversees UC Berkeley’s legal program, which has served over 250 undocumented students. IHRLC alumni Habiba Simjee ’14 and Genna Beier ’14 were critical members of the research team.

Who are the DREAMers?

Among the estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. is a generation of young immigrants educated in the United States. Over a quarter of undocumented youth in the nation reside in California and it is estimated that over 2,000 undocumented undergraduate and graduate students are currently enrolled in the University of California system. These young undocumented immigrants, known as DREAMers, have become not only more visible on college campuses but in the national debate on immigration reform.

Navigating Higher Education

The report identifies barriers to higher education arising from undocumented status. Undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid despite their financial need. Nearly all students in the study (94%) reported annual family incomes of less than $50,000 with the vast majority of households (88%) living below 150% of the federal poverty level.

Despite recent efforts to provide more financial aid, the study’s findings reveal the precarious situation of undocumented students on campus. Nearly three-quarters of students (73%) reported skipping meals or reducing the size of their meals while studying at UC Berkeley. Almost a quarter (21%) of students reported a period of homelessness or lack of stable housing during the time they have been enrolled at the university. Among the report’s recommendations are to extend access to federal financial aid for undocumented students and expand the eligibility criteria and pool of resources available in California.

UC DREAMers and their Families

Nearly all students in the study came to the U.S. more than a decade ago when most were under the age of 12. Most students belong to mixed status families which means, according to Davenport that “Family members living under the same roof live very different lives due to immigration status. One sibling may enjoy full citizenship while another lives in constant fear of deportation.” Over half (57%) of the undocumented students surveyed indicated they have a sibling with lawful permanent status or U.S. citizenship, slightly more (59%) have an undocumented sibling, and several reported the deportation of a close relative.

A shift in the legal landscape came in 2012, when the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary permission to live and work in the U.S. to certain eligible young immigrants. The overwhelming majority of research participants qualified for DACA. “DACA has provided stability and new opportunities to so many Cal students,” said Davenport, “But its future is uncertain and those students who do not qualify for the program continue to live without legal protection and permission to work.”

The report examines the central role of family for undocumented UC Berkeley students and how concern for family shapes their decisions. “DACA is a welcome change” noted Davenport, “but there is no peace of mind for these students until their parents and siblings have legal protection.”

Download a copy of the report “DREAMers at Cal” here.