Blog Archives

Congolese-American Defends Immigrants’ Right to Asylum

Patricia Okoumou protests U.S. treatment of families seeking asylum by climbing to base of Statue of Liberty last July 4. Photo by Abagond at wordpress.com

In a dramatic defense of the right of migrants to seek asylum when fleeing persecution and threats to their life, a Congolese-American U.S. citizen climbed the Statue of Liberty on 2018. U.S. Independence Day 2018. This year Patricia Okoumo continued her protest of the official U.S. response to migrants at the southern border by scaling the Austin, TX Southwest Key immigrant detention facility last month. Southwest Key is contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) to detain and/or keep tabs on migrants who have fled their violence-plagued homelands.

In interviews following her climb to the base of the Liberty statue, Okoumou highlighted the plight of hundreds of migrant families separated by ICE detention. Despite prior pledges to reunite the families, ICE reported there were still up to 3000 children who remained in children-only detention when the climb at the Statue took place. In one interview the 44 year old protestor stated, “I felt peaceful, that I was with those children in spirit. I could feel their isolation and their cries being answered only by four walls.” Buffeted by high winds for three hours before her arrest and descent from the Statue, Okoumou said, “I was thinking of Lady Liberty above me, you are so huge, you have always been a symbol of welcome to people arriving in America and right now, for me under this sandal, she is a shelter.”

Surrounded by fellow Rise and Resist members, Patricia Okoumou spoke to the press at her December hearing. Photo by Jeenah Moon (Reuters)

For a decade now, both the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to discourage Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. from their countries’ rampant violence. Although El Salvador and Honduras both rank among the five most violent countries in the world today, the Trump administration has drastically reduced the number of asylum applicants admitted to this country. For the fiscal year 2018, there was a cap set of 45,000 asylees, but only 22,491 people were eventually accepted. Further discouraging migrants who might willfully submit to the U.S. immigration process, as of July 2018 the average wait time for an immigration hearing was 721 days. While funding of ICE apprehension and detention of migrants increased substantially during the Obama years and has continued to rise under Trump, allocations for hiring more immigration judges has not kept up.

Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees signed by the U.S. and more than 140 other countries, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. A study by the UN High Commission for Refugees found that 80 per cent of the women from Central America and Mexico applying for asylum at the U.S. southern border were found to have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture.” In practice, the U.S. denied 89 per cent of the asylum applications in 2016. Among those deported to their countries of origin, there are well documented cases of asylum seekers being attacked and killed on their return.

Rise and Resist activists called for abolition of ICE at the December court hearing. Photo by NYDailyNews

The right to seek refuge from potential persecution and violence in one’s home country is a well established principle of internationally recognized human rights. The UN Declaration of Human Rights upheld the right which dates back at least to the time of Ancient Greece. More recently, the U.S. joined 145 other countries in ratifying the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1967.

Following her arrest in Texas, the New York City court ordered Patricia Okoumou to wear an ankle bracelet to enable monitoring of her movements until her sentencing on March 19. Meanwhile, the group Rise and Resist, to which she belongs, calls for the abolition of ICE by the U.S. “We stand on the right side of history,” Okoumou said after she was found guilty by the judge in New York. “I am not … discouraged” she continued. “Today our laws sometimes lack morality and this is a perfect example of that.” In summing up the motives for her dramatic protests she declared while choking up, “I wanted to send a strong statement that children do not belong in cages”.