- Director of Human Rights First’s Refugee Program
After earning a BA from Brown University and a JD from Fordham University, Eleanor Acer took a job with the law firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, LLP, where she worked as an associate handling federal litigation. In 1996 she became the director of Human Rights First‘s Refugee Protection Program, which partnered with volunteer attorneys across the U.S. to obtain asylum for more than 90% of its refugee clients. Acer continues to hold this post today. She speaks, writes, and advocates regularly on issues relating to the human rights of refugees and migrants—issues such as legal representation, detention, U.S. asylum law, and protection from “xenophobic and bias-motivated violence.” She also has testified on these matters before the U.S. Congress. “This country was founded on the concept of asylum, that you never return those who flee persecution to countries where they are persecuted,” says Acer. “Are we living up to this commitment?”
Acer opposed the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which not only authorized U.S. immigration officers to detain asylum-seekers until their backgrounds could be thoroughly vetted, but also placed a one-year time limit on filing for asylum; Acer has argued in congressional hearings against both practices.
In the early 2000s, Acer spoke out against then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s order requiring immigration authorities to detain all Haitian refugees arriving illegally in the U.S. by sea—an order that was intended to discourage others from attempting to do the same. “This is not a decision which is concerned so much with protecting our security as it is concerned with sending a message to the Haitians themselves,” Acer complained. “The thinly veiled message behind this order reads: ‘Go home Haitians. You are not wanted here.’”
In March 2003, Acer argued against every provision of the Department Of Homeland Security’s (DHS) newly enacted Operation Liberty Shield (OLS), which was intended to provide: more Coast Guard patrols at major American ports and waterways; more Border Patrol agents to monitor U.S. land borders; tighter controls on the movements of asylum applicants from nations where terrorist groups were known to have operated; stronger security measures at airports; enhanced security for railways, petroleum centers, and nuclear power sites; and more funding for efforts to derail cyber-terror plots. Acer complained that OLS would “target individuals for detention based solely upon their nationality,” thereby making a “mockery” of liberty. The program was terminated in May 2003.
In April 2003, Acer was a signatory to a letter calling on then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge to “devote the necessary resources to ensuring that the pace of refugee resettlement is improved so that the U.S. can meet its resettlement targets,” and to “ensure that adequate resources are devoted to alternatives to detention” for “refugees and asylum seekers.”
In August 2004, Acer objected when DHS announced a plan that would authorize Border Patrol agents to bypass formal immigration hearings — which could take months before they took place — and deport illegal aliens immediately. Said Acer: “[T]his is a real problem. Because under this new policy, border patrol agents anywhere in the border region are going to have the power to actually issue the kinds of orders that immigration judges right now are issuing themselves. So basically, they’re going to be able to act like immigration judges. And border patrol agents really shouldn’t have this authority.”
In 2006 Acer spoke out against House Referendum 4437, the so-called “Sensenbrenner Bill” sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin). This legislation, which Congress had passed by a margin of 239 to 182 in December 2005, was intended to make it a felony for anyone to be in the United States illegally; to make it a crime for anyone to assist illegal aliens in any way; and to initiate the construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. “[T]he U.S. House of Representatives has turned a cold shoulder on those who seek this country’s protection from persecution,” said Acer. “… This bill would turn asylum seekers into ‘felons,’ jail them for longer periods in immigration jails, and limit their access to federal courts that can prevent their mistaken deportation back into the hands of their persecutors.” On another occasion, Acer said: “If these provisions are enacted, they will undermine this country’s commitment to protecting those who flee political and religious persecution. America’s historic role as a haven for refugees is at stake.”
In June 2008, Acer was a featured panelist at the American Constitution Society‘s national convention. Other notable guest speakers included Kathleen Sullivan, Jamie Gorelick, Eric Holder, Marcia Greenberger, Wade Henderson, Elena Kagan, Patrick Leahy, John Podesta, and Laurence Tribe.
In 2012 Acer exhorted American immigration authorities to: implement “cost-effective alternatives to detention in cases for individuals who pose no public risk but need additional monitoring or supervision”; “cease the use of jails and jail-like facilities for immigration detention”; “increase access to mental health and medical care” for immigrants and refugees; and “end the detention of children.” “It’s shocking that those who flee to this country seeking protection from persecution, as well as many other immigrants seeking better lives, are often welcomed to this great nation with shackles and prison uniforms,” said Acer.
Acer condemned “the discriminatory intent and impact” of President Donald Trump’s January 2017 executive order which imposed a temporary moratorium on the issuance of visas for people seeking to travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim nations that were hotbeds of Islamic terrorism. “This order is essentially religious discrimination masquerading … in the language of national security,” said Acer. “The order targets people from Muslim-majority countries and will sharply reduce resettlement of Muslim refugees.” On another occasion, Acer characterized the Trump policy as “cruel and disgraceful.”
In November 2018, Acer objected to the Trump Administration’s effort to: (a) apprehend illegal asylum-seekers who chose to cross the U.S.-Mexico border at locations other than any of the 300+ official ports of entry, and (b) channel those scofflaws to ports of entry where their cases could be processed in a controlled and timely manner. Trump’s proposed policy was a reaction to the fact that, each and every month, America’s southern border was being overrun by tens of thousands of people who knew that if they could somehow manage to sneak into U.S. territory before making their asylum requests, they stood a good chance of being released into the U.S. interior along with a notice instructing them to report for a formal asylum hearing at some date in the very distant future. This of course would give such people plenty of time to simply disappear, never again to be seen by U.S. immigration authorities. Notwithstanding these realities, Acer characterized the Trump policy as “an illegal attempt to do an end run around laws Congress passed.”
In May 2019, Acer was outraged when President Trump threatened to impose tariffs on many billions of dollars worth of Mexican imports if Mexico failed to take immediate measures to stem the massive flow of migrants from other Central American countries — most notably Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — who had long been passing unobstructed through Mexico and (illegally) into the southern United States. In early June, the Mexican government caved to Trump’s pressure and agreed to: (a) deploy several thousand of its National Guard troops to deal with illegal migration, and (b) allow the U.S. to return illegal border-crossers to Mexico, where they could await the adjudication of their asylum claims. In Acer’s estimation: “This deal is a disgrace and embarrassment to both countries. [It] will put the lives of even more refugees in danger and trigger more dysfunction and chaos. Asylum seekers returned to Mexico under this illegal scheme are already suffering kidnappings, threats, assaults, and other violence. This is just another chaotic, cruel and counterproductive attempt to block refugees from the United States.”
In addition to her work with Human Rights First, Acer has also served on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration; the Fordham University School of Law’s Board of Advisors to the Crowley Program in International Human Rights; the International Detention Coalition’s Advisory Board; the International Human Rights Committee; and the New York Bar Association’s Immigration Committee. She was vice-chairman of the Refugee Council USA from 2006 to 2008. And she has taught graduate-level classes on refugee protection and migrants’ rights as an adjunct professor at the New School in New York City.
Further Reading: “Eleanor Acer” (HumanRightsFirst.org).