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Ensuring Human Rights Protections and Access to Justice

Resource type: Grantee Story

“I just kept fighting to be free. I knew I couldn’t give up because if I returned to Sierra Leone my life would be in danger.”

That is how 25-year-old Badiatu Tunis, a Sierra Leone native residing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, describes being detained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for more than three and a half years while the agency tried to deport her. Following enforcement practices that are now commonplace, DHS arrested Ms. Tunis in 2004 on the day she completed her seven-month criminal sentence and shipped her to a suburban Midwestern jail.

Fortunately for Ms. Tunis, a jail nurse alerted the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) to the case. The nurse observed that Ms. Tunis was in ill health, the result of genital mutilation in Sierra Leone, and knew she would face dangerous consequences if deported.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of NIJC, the leading immigrant and human rights programme in the Midwest United States and an Atlantic grantee, Ms. Tunis gained her freedom in June 2007 after a long battle. A year earlier, she had won her legal case before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals with the aid of NIJC and its pro bono attorneys. The Court ruled that she faced harm in her home country that was prohibited by the Convention Against Torture, but DHS refused to release her. Ms. Tunis’ freedom came shortly after NIJC filed suit in May 2007 claiming that her detention was arbitrary.

NIJC, a programme of Heartland Alliance, ensures human rights protections and access to justice for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers through direct legal services, policy reform, litigation and public education. Drawing on its core legal services, NIJC advocates for national reform. NIJC partners with other Midwestern organisations that work on behalf of immigrants detained in remote locations.

“Our goal is systemic reform through the courts as well as the legislative branch and executive agencies. Our cases before the Seventh Circuit Court have educated federal judges on the failure of the immigration system to uphold American ideals of justice,” said NIJC Director Mary Meg McCarthy. “More than 230,000 immigrants from all regions of the world are being held unjustly by the U.S. government each year. Immigrants like Badiatu Tunis are not threats to our country and should not be detained.”