Photography Businesses Don’t Have a First Amendment Right to Discriminate

April 7th, 2014 No Comments   Posted in ACLU Nationwide
By Joshua Block, LGBT Project

Today the Supreme Court turned away a photography business's claim that it had a First Amendment right to break New Mexico public accommodations law and discriminate against gay customers.

No court has ever held that a business has a First Amendment right to discriminate in the commercial marketplace. For over 150 years, states have passed public accommodation laws saying that if a business voluntarily decides to open its doors to the public, they can't pick and choose which customers they will serve.

But Elane Photography – which sells commercial photography services for weddings and other events – has argued that it does not have to follow the normal rules that apply to every other business in New Mexico because taking photographs is a form of protected speech, which requires artistic creativity. If Elane Photography were right, then photography businesses would have a First Amendment right to discriminate against any customer for any reason. Under Elane Photography's argument, an interracial family could walk into the portrait studio in the local shopping mall and be turned away because the photographer does not want to take a picture of interracial couples.

The same groups that have been backing recent efforts to give businesses the right to turn away gay customers have been eagerly following the Elane Photography case because they know that Elane Photography's argument would create a gigantic loophole in the protection of public accommodation laws. Numerous business interactions could be characterized as containing an expressive element.

Already, bakeshops that do not want to sell cakes to gay customers are describing themselves as "cake artists" in order claim a similar First Amendment right.

When you make the decision to hold yourself out as a business that serves the general public, you have to be willing to actually serve the general public, which includes a diverse group of people whose values and beliefs may be different than the values and beliefs of the business owner. Selling commercial wedding photography services, like selling a wedding cake or a flower arrangement, does not mean that a business owner endorses a customer's marriage. Everybody has the right to express their views on whatever subject they wish, and that includes business owners. But every business has to play by the same rules in the public marketplace.

Learn more about the LGBT discrimination and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Equal Pay by the Numbers

April 4th, 2014 No Comments   Posted in ACLU Nationwide
By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

Over fifty after the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Senate is poised to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a much needed update to this law. While the Equal Pay Act was a historic piece of legislation that finally acknowledged that women were owed equal pay for equal work, it's clear that additional improvements are still needed. As we "celebrate" Equal Pay Day on April 8, the symbolic day into 2014 a woman must work to earn as much as a man did in 2013 alone, there is no better time for Congress to vote for equal pay now.

Here are some numbers to consider in advance of the vote.

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women who work full time still earn, on average, only 77 cents for every 1 dollar men earn.
  • The statistics are even worse for women of color. On average, African American women being paid only 64 cents, and the gap for Latinas is only 54 cents when compared to white men.
  • Just one year out of college, women working full time who are of similar age, education, and family responsibilities are paid on average just 82 cents of what their male peers were paid.
  • If the wage gap were closed, women and their families, on average, would have $11,000 more in their pockets.
  • By age 65, the average woman has lost $431,000 due to the earnings gap.
  • If women received pay equal to their male counterparts, the U.S. economy would produce $447.6 billion in additional income.

And here's another number: 60

That's the number of Senators we need to vote to allow the Paycheck Fairness Act to move forward.

The Senate is expected to take a procedural vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act next week to allow the bill to be debated and heard on its merits. It's been 17 years since this bill was first introduced, and it deserves to make it past this hurdle and get an up or down vote.

Support for the Paycheck Fairness Act is overwhelming: 84% of registered voters said they support a new law that would provide women more tools to get fair pay in the workplace. But unfortunately, partisan gridlock may mean getting 60 senators to support moving forward on the bill will prove the hardest number of all.

Looking at the real life impact of the wage gap, that just doesn't add up. In this tough economic climate, there is no better time than now for our Members of Congress to support fair pay legislation. Families clearly want and need to bring home every dollar they rightfully earn – making pay equity even more necessary, not only to families' economic security, but to the nation's economic recovery. Senators must recognize that not only is correcting discrimination a matter of fundamental fairness, but doing so would help to contribute to economic prosperity nationwide. These are dollars that already belong to their constituents.

When the bill comes up for a vote, we urge the Senate to do the right thing – for women, for their families, and for our nation.

Learn more about the Equal Pay Act and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Have We Become a “Surveillance State”? A Five-Part Test

April 4th, 2014 No Comments   Posted in ACLU Nationwide, Free Future
By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project

At a panel in Toronto recently I was asked whether I thought the United States had become a “surveillance state.” How to answer that question? At first glance it’s an impossibly fuzzy question, the answer to which is relative depending on whether one has in mind life in an 18th century American town, or the Stasi. At the same time, if we can impose some structure on how we approach the question, it is an opportunity to take stock of where we stand—probably a healthy exercise.

Thinking it over, I came up with a five-part test by which we can consider the question:

  1. Capacity. To what extent have we reached the point where we are technologically capable of building a total surveillance society?
  2. Infrastructure. To what extent have technological capacities actually been utilized to build infrastructures for mass surveillance?
  3. Activation. To what extent are those surveillance infrastructures actually being used to collect, store and analyze people’s data?
  4. Enforcement. To what extent is that surveillance actually being used by the government to enforce societal laws, rules, regulations, and norms?
  5. Authoritarian abuse. To what extent is that surveillance being done in an undemocratic manner and/or being abused to maintain power and stifle dissent and other fundamental rights?

We can imagine a sliding scale for each factor, with the low end being the state of the art in, say, colonial America, and the high end being the ultimate imaginable surveillance society—a dystopian combination of Orwell, the Stasi, and the USSR. Some thoughts on where we stand on each measure:

1. Technological Capacity
On this dimension, it’s fair to say we have arrived. As a technological matter, there is nothing stopping us from building the most total surveillance society in which everyone’s movements, communications, and activities are tracked in their entirety. That’s not to say that many more “innovations” making it easier and cheaper to carry out surveillance aren’t going to be coming down the pike. But overall, we are there.

To a great extent our newfound capacity for total surveillance is a side effect of the amazing technological advances that have brought us so many benefits in other areas. That larger progress is a good thing. At the same time, it is also, to some extent at least, the result of directed investment in surveillance technologies—which we have seen in many areas such as biometrics. Those “advances” in capacity reflect not the larger revolution in technology but the interest of our security state in expanding surveillance to the maximum possible extent.

2. The building of infrastructure
Significant infrastructures for the mass surveillance of the population are now in existence, including perhaps most significantly the cell phone network, the internet advertising system, and the NSA’s spying apparatus. As with our technological capacity, some of these actual surveillance infrastructures, such as the cell phone network, are accidental—though no less powerful for it—while others have been created specifically for the purpose of surveillance.

At the same time, there are many other infrastructures for mass surveillance that could be built today, but have not been so far. These range from the increasingly real (a nationwide network of license scanners) to the apparently approaching (wide-area drone surveillance, networks of WiFi or RFID readers) to the threatening (smart roads, the widespread addition of microphones to surveillance cameras) to the technologically doable but politically unimaginable (such as a network of government cameras in every bedroom).

The bottom line is while we have the technological capacity to do much more surveillance than we are actually doing today, we are already living in the shadow of some far-reaching surveillance infrastructures that previous generations of Americans would have been stunned to learn of.

3. Activation for collecting and analyzing
Just because a surveillance infrastructure exists does not necessarily mean that it is being used, or used to its maximum capability. Data could flow through government hands without being stored or examined, or it could be stored without being analyzed. Or, on the other hand, the authorities could leave no bit behind, storing and analyzing everything.

The cell phone network and the legal regime that governs it, for example, could theoretically provide the authorities with a constant stream of location data about all citizens at a much greater level of detail than that which is now generally retained (a scenario that might look like this). On the other end of the spectrum, though the operation of the technology requires that cell towers be aware of one’s location at any moment, it would be entirely possible to structure the system so that it doesn’t retain any of that location data. Or we could create a legal regime that at least prevents location data from flowing to the authorities without a warrant.

Similarly, although the NSA has constructed an enormous infrastructure for the mass collection of communications data, the boundaries of actual collection, storage, and analysis of those communications—while clearly far, far broader than is justified—appear to be highly variable depending on factors such as content vs. metadata, type of content, source of data, and whether the communicating parties are Americans or non-Americans.

With each of the three biggest surveillance infrastructures that now exist (the phone network, the internet advertising machine, and the NSA), the extent to which the systems’ capabilities are actually being exploited is currently the subject of raucous debate and controversy. Of course, even if some degree of “surveillance capacity” is lying unused with these infrastructures, it would be foolish to think that agencies won’t over time push to exploit them to the fullest.

4. Using for enforcement
It is theoretically possible that government agencies and companies could carry out huge amounts of surveillance on Americans, but not act on any of it. On the other extreme, it’s also possible that it could be used to rigorously—in fact absolutely—enforce all existing legitimately democratically enacted laws and rules. Such absolute enforcement (as I argued here) would bring many problems and injustices. There are an enormous number of laws on the books, many of which are susceptible to broad discretion by the authorities, so the use of mass surveillance to enforce even only legitimately democratically enacted laws would insert the government into Americans’ lives in an extraordinarily pervasive manner.

Where are we on this scale? Today our spy agencies justify their surveillance in terms of stopping terrorism and other global geo-political interests, but in August, Reuters revealed that intelligence information was being secretly funneled to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations. We don’t know exactly what’s involved, but this has the feel of a slope that is potentially very slippery indeed.

Domestic law enforcement, of course, makes aggressive use of all the surveillance vectors available to it (everything from internet and cell phone surveillance systems to such things as toll booth records) to enforce those laws that it chooses to enforce.

5. Authoritarian abuse
The concept of a “surveillance society” is tightly bound up with totalitarian political regimes that use their surveillance infrastructures to suppress dissent and maintain power. The degree to which the surveillance infrastructures that exist are used for such purposes is the final factor to be considered.

We are no Soviet Union or East Germany. That said, experience suggests that sweeping surveillance systems will be abused—to illegally oppress lawful political dissidents and protesters, stifle political opposition, and squelch free speech—even in largely democratic countries. Over the past century we have seen a persistent strain in our security establishment of authoritarian elements that engage in political spying and other abuses against peaceful political protesters.

In a 2008 law review article, Jack Balkin created an idealized distinction between an “authoritarian information state” and a democratic one. A democratic information state is one that respects privacy by, for example, collecting only the information that is truly needed, destroying data when no longer of use, and not keeping tabs on citizens without justifiable reasons. Two other differences are also crucial:

  • The authoritarian attempt to keep secret the information collected vs. the democratic creation of checks and balances and the distribution of information to the public.
  • The authoritarian reliance on secret laws and regulations vs. public laws and open decision-making processes.

Like political spying, these two factors are good criteria to help us evaluate this final factor. To the extent our surveillance apparatus is used for political spying and is marked by excessive secrecy, a lack of checks and balances, and the reliance on secret law, we can say that this factor is high. Again we’re no East Germany, but on all these fronts we have slid a dismaying distance toward the wrong end of the spectrum.

So has the United States become a “surveillance society”? That question is clearly a complex and multi-faceted one, but I hope that this analytical framework can give us a way to approach the question, and to engage in the valuable exercise of evaluating where we as a society have come. Clearly we are far further along the path than we should be.

Take the CIA Out of the Loop on the Torture Report

April 3rd, 2014 No Comments   Posted in ACLU Nationwide
By Chris Anders, Senior Legislative Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Fool me three times? Good grief, no one should ever be fooled three times.

But that's exactly what will happen to the Senate Intelligence Committee – and the American people – unless President Obama puts a leash on an unchecked CIA. He now must stop them from taking any more steps to try to hide its record of torture, secret prisons and the kidnapping program known as extraordinary rendition.

The committee voted Thursday to submit its torture report to the executive branch for a declassification review and then public release.

Under the leadership of Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee conducted a five-year investigation into the CIA's use of torture between 2001 and 2006. Senators and their staffs reviewed more than 3 million pages of CIA documents, resulting in a report of more than 6,000 pages.

One of the very few conclusions of the report that's been made public is that the CIA repeatedly misled Congress, the White House and the Justice Department on the facts of the torture program.

An entire section of the report is dedicated to CIA falsehoods, presumably including lies to the very committee charged with overseeing the CIA.

Fool the Senate once, shame on the CIA.

Read the rest at

Learn more about torture and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Utah Enacts Significant Location and Communications Privacy Bill

April 3rd, 2014 No Comments   Posted in ACLU Nationwide, Free Future
By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU

On Monday, Utah became the first state to enact legislation simultaneously protecting location information and electronic communications content, regardless of age, from government access—ensuring that state and local law enforcement can only access that sensitive information when there is good reason to believe that it will reveal evidence of a crime, or in true emergencies.

This is notable for two reasons.

  • First, these are the primary two reforms we seek to the outdated federal law that governs our privacy in the digital age, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). While Utah is not the first state to enact location protections (that was Montana followed by Maine) or protections for electronic communications content (that was Texas), Utah has shown that these reforms can pass as a package. Utah can now be a proving ground for ECPA reform, demonstrating that law enforcement can effectively do its job while simultaneously protecting privacy.
  • Second, Utah’s new law is also remarkable because of its breadth. The law covers “location information, stored data, or transmitted data of an electronic device.” There is no question that this language provides protections for location information and for electronic communications content regardless of age. It’s also clear that the law covers the use of controversial StingRay technology. There is also every reason to believe that “stored and transmitted data” covers metadata. Ever since the NSA revelations began last summer, the sensitivity of metadata has been widely recognized, and what to do about it has been the million-dollar question. Utah’s new law demonstrates that, as the ACLU has recommended, requiring a warrant for law enforcement to access metadata is sensible and workable policy.

States in every region of the country are actively considering legislation protecting location information and electronic communications content, sometimes together in one package. We hope more states will follow Utah’s lead—and we’ll continue working with state legislators to make that happen.

Wait, Did An Oklahoma Hospital Try to Ban Birth Control Prescriptions For An Entire Town?

April 3rd, 2014 No Comments   Posted in ACLU Nationwide
By Kelsey Townsend, Reproductive Freedom Project, ACLU

Last week, women in Bartlesville, Oklahoma faced a terrifying possibility. According to a new religiously based directive from the town's main health care system, only one OB-GYN in the entire town would have been allowed to prescribe birth control. So access to contraceptives in the city would have gone something like this: Is Dr. Oliver your OB-GYN? If so...congratulations! You can continue receiving prescription contraception for birth control. If not…too bad! Unless you require contraceptives for reasons other than birth control, you can no longer receive a prescription from your physician.

That's right. According to a report by the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise, a new directive would have required physicians affiliated with Jane Phillips Medical Center to stop prescribing contraceptives for the purpose of birth control, leaving the city of over 18,500 women with only one OB-GYN (the aforementioned Dr. Oliver) with the ability to do so.

Fortunately, the people of Bartlesville, and elsewhere, recognized the outrageousness of this possibility. After the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise story went viral and there was outpouring of social media opposition, St. John Health System, which owns Jane Phillips Medical Center, released a statement clarifying that while the institution itself does not approve or support contraceptive practices, physicians maintain the ability to prescribe medications "in accordance with their independent professional medical judgment."

While this seems to resolve the dispute in Bartlesville, questions like these will continue to arise as Catholic health systems continue to expand. Jane Phillips Medical Center is just one of an increasing number of Catholic-sponsored facilities where standards of reproductive care are compromised by a requirement to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As a joint ACLU/MergerWatch report showed, 10 of the 25 largest health systems in the United States in 2011 were Catholic-sponsored. Together, these health systems accounted for $213.7 billion dollars in gross patient revenue and 330 acute-care hospitals with 63,579 beds. And these health systems are rapidly expanding.

What do those abstract numbers have to do with you? If you walk into a Catholic-sponsored hospital, you may be giving up your ability to make decisions about your own health care. These Directives dictate treatment at Catholic-sponsored facilities regardless of the ethical and religious beliefs of the patient, and they pose a serious threat to reproductive health care. For an example of this, look no further than the case of Tamesha Means, a woman whose health was put at grave risk when her local hospital put the Directives above her health needs in treating her miscarriage.

It is critically important that we monitor this expansion and ensure that our ability to govern our own health care remains intact. Like the people of Bartlesville, the public must stand up to ensure that basic medical treatment isn't denied in the name of religion.

Learn more about birth control coverage and other civil liberties issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Why is the U.S. Border Patrol Terrorizing Innocent Families?

April 3rd, 2014 No Comments   Posted in ACLU Nationwide
By Clarisa Christiansen

Imagine you had just picked up your kids from school. You're driving home on a secluded country road when your car is pulled over by armed US law enforcement agents who threaten you with a knife and taser. That's what happened to me last May and my kids and I still haven't recovered from the experience.

I live in a desert community outside of Tucson, about 40 miles from the US-Mexico border, where my family owns thirty acres of land. Border Patrol agents around here roam our country roads, supposedly on the watch for migrants and drug-runners that sneak across the border. A few times before this particular incident agents had followed me and my kids, in my soccer mom van, for no reason I know. But until last May 21st, I had never been directly confronted by them.

mytubethumb See video
Privacy statement. This embed will serve content from

That afternoon, after leaving my daughter's school with my two kids in the back seat, I turned down the dirt road that leads to our property. I stopped briefly to check my tires, and noticed a Border Patrol car parked on the side of the road, but didn't think much of it. I continued down the road as usual, talking to my kids about how their day went and what we would do when we got home. Suddenly I noticed in my rear view mirror that the Border Patrol vehicle was behind me. At first I was more curious than concerned, and then they forced me to pull over.

One of the agents approached my van and asked if I was an American citizen, which I am. He then told me to get out of the car so they could search my vehicle. When I asked what reason they had for searching my car, the agent got aggressive. He demanded in a gruff voice that I comply with his order. I continued to insist that I thought I had a right to know why they had pulled me over before I would get out of the car, and when they wouldn't answer I decided to leave. That's when the agent's behavior turned really threatening. He called back to the other agents, "This one's being difficult, get the taser." Next he opened my door, pulled out a knife, and holding it against my seat belt, he shouted at me, "Ma'am, do I need to cut you out of your seatbelt?" Then he reached into the car and grabbed my keys.

There I was, alone in the middle of the desert, with my five and seven year old, surrounded by three hostile armed men who had my car keys. I was really afraid. So I finally stepped out the car, trembling, while my kids watched from the back seat. I stood next to my van while they bullied and lectured me about their right to search my vehicle, stating that my questioning them put me under suspicion. When the agents finally left, I grabbed my keys from the hood of the car where they'd left them, and started to drive away, only to realize that I had a flat. That's when I discovered that my rear tire had been slashed, a clear knife cut down the side. So I called my brother, who came with a jack to help me change the tire and get my scared kids home safely.

Unfortunately the arrogant and abusive behavior I experienced from the Border Patrol is not at all unusual for those of us who live in this border community. Roving patrols are always watching us from the side of the road, and questioning and harassing people. It's like living with an occupying army. My neighbor who runs the market and cafe in the town of Three Points down the road had to put up with Border Patrol agents coming onto the premises and searching through all the rooms, without any explanation. She finally got so angry she put her foot down. She now has a sign in the cafe, "No armed men allowed."

The saddest thing for me is that my kids are still afraid when we see Border Patrol. They keep asking me if we are going to get pulled over again by the agents, and "if they are going to be mean again and take mommy away." I finally decided that the constant threat of being harassed and interrogated driving back and forth from school to home just wasn't worth it. So I pulled my kids out of school, and with my mother's help they're being home schooled now.

I am still outraged that Border Patrol agents seem to think they have authority near the border to do whatever they want and face no consequences. The very day of the incident last May I tried to file a complaint. Our local sheriff told me to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the agency in charge of the Border Patrol. A DHS officer took down my story and said the incident would be investigated, but he told me there was no report from any Border Patrol agent about the incident. I never heard back from DHS until an ACLU lawyer in Tucson called on my behalf. Another DHS officer who then contacted me said my $50 claim to have my tire replaced was denied. They decided the tire was torn not slashed, and suggested I could file a lawsuit. He told me he would contact me after he interviewed an agent involved in my case. That was almost a year ago and I've never heard back from any DHS official since.

I'm proud to say I'm now one of the people named in a complaint the ACLU has filed with DHS on behalf of five Arizonans, US citizens who were subjected to abusive behavior by roving patrols. I believe strongly that we have rights under the Constitution that should be protected, and I want to see the Border Patrol held accountable. I recently accepted an invitation to go to Washington DC to speak to members of Congress about my experience, hoping my story could help bring a change in the way cases of Border Patrol abuse are handled. No one should be treated the way I was –leaving me and my family terrified and then ignored by an agency that is supposed to be in charge of our security. I'm standing up for my rights and I hope others will join me.

Learn more about militarization at the border and other civil liberty issuesSign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Introducing the ACLU’s NSA Documents Database

April 3rd, 2014 No Comments   Posted in ACLU Nationwide
By Emily Weinrebe, ACLU National Security Project

The public debate over our government's surveillance programs has reached remarkable heights since the first set of NSA disclosures in June 2013 based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Since then, additional disclosures by both the press and government have illuminated our government's vast and invasive surveillance apparatus. These documents stand as primary source evidence of our government's interpretation of its authority to engage in sweeping surveillance activities at home and abroad, and how it carries out that surveillance. The ACLU hopes to facilitate this debate by making these documents more easily accessible and understandable. Toward that end, today we are launching the NSA Documents Database.

This tool will be an up-to-date, complete collection of previously secret NSA documents made public since last June. The database is designed to be easily searchable – by title, category, or content – so that the public, researchers, and journalists can readily home in on the information they are looking for.

We have made all of the documents text-searchable to allow users to investigate particular key words or phrases. Alternatively, the filter function allows users to sort based on the type of surveillance involved, the specific legal authorities implicated, the purpose of the surveillance, or the source of the disclosure. For example, you can have the database return all documents that both pertain to "Section 215" and "Internal NSA/DOJ Legal Analysis." We will update the database with new documents as they become available to the public.

The fact is that most of the documents contained in this database should have never been secret in the first place. Now, with newfound access to these records, we can educate ourselves about the true nature and scope of government surveillance in its many forms. This database will serve as a critical tool with which we will hold our government accountable.

Learn more about government secrecy and other civil liberty issuesSign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Immigrants Have No Access to Justice

April 2nd, 2014 No Comments   Posted in ACLU Nationwide
By Sarah Mehta, Fellow, Immigrants' Rights Project, ACLU

Yesterday, I joined several organizations aiming to inform the U.S. government of its human rights commitments regarding access to justice .

My presentation focused on access to justice in the U.S. immigration system and was part of series of consultations the Obama administration is holding with civil and human rights groups in preparation of US government Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report which will be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council later this year.

The testimony was an opportunity to remind the U.S. government (represented in the audience by officials from several offices including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice) that for many immigrants facing deportation, the justice system is closed off.

Under the Obama administration more than two million immigrants have been deported. And last year—according to the government's own records—more than 70 percent of them did not even have a hearing before an immigration judge. The main person reviewing whether they had the right to be in the United States was an immigration enforcement officer. In research I am conducting on this issue in the United States and in Mexico, I have found that the majority of people being deported have no idea what their rights are, what rights they are waiving, and what penalties they accept when they sign a removal order. In some places, border officials rarely ask people apprehended if they are afraid to go back to their country of origin—one of the few but essential legal requirements in place to protect people at our borders. This omission has stark consequences: some of the people we've interviewed have been abused, raped or kidnapped after asking for help but being deported anyway.

The people deported quickly and without a hearing include kids traveling by themselves—at great personal risk—to the United States. Last month, I spoke with 13 unaccompanied kids from ages 11 to 17 who had been deported. They talked about being yelled at and terrified in detention before signing a paper, under pressure from border officials that they didn't understand and was never explained to them.

Even those who do receive a hearing rarely have a lawyer. Unlike in U.S. criminal court, where right to counsel is guaranteed to almost everyone regardless of ability to pay, in immigration court only immigrants who can afford them generally get lawyers. And yet the Department of Homeland Security--the agency that arrests, prosecutes and deports immigrants--is always represented in removal proceedings, even as immigrants, including children as young as three years old, are left to fend for themselves.

In the midst of this bleak situation, there are some small signs of improvement. Last year, thanks to an ACLU lawsuit, a federal court in California ordered the government to provide counsel to immigration detainees with mental disabilities. And encouragingly, the Senate immigration reform bill—endorsed by President Barack Obama—passed last year would provide appointed counsel to those with designated mental disabilities, children, and additional vulnerable immigrants. The U.S. government has made promises before on these issues but those promises have often been unkept.

The U.S. government must now fulfill its obligations by extending legal representation to all immigrants facing deportation from the United States Denying immigrants the ability to defend against deportation and have their day in court violates both international human rights and the U.S. Constitution's right to due process.

The ACLU's written testimony on access to justice for immigrants is available here.

Learn more about universal human rights and other civil liberty issuesSign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Meet the Five Winning Couples of "My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding!"

April 2nd, 2014 No Comments   Posted in ACLU Nationwide
By Alicia Gay, ACLU

Almost 200,000 supporters of the freedom to marry voted for couples from across the country, to win the "My Big Gay (Il)legal Wedding" contest. The winning couples will each receive $5,000 towards the wedding of their dreams as part of our campaign to raise awareness regarding inequality in states where same-sex marriage is not yet legal.

The five winning couples are:

Jeff and JeremiahJeff Robertson and Jeremiah Pyant (Houston, Texas): After meeting on an airplane, the couple catapulted to national awareness when the video of their surprise engagement went viral. Because of Jeremiah's job as a flight attendant, he could literally be recognized as a legally married man one minute—and not the next—as he flies from state to state.
Tamara and MaryjaTamara Sheffield and Maryja Mee (Salisbury, North Carolina): The college sweethearts of 24 years founded their community's first Pride Parade in 2011, and work year-round on issues related to anti-bullying and equality for all.
Rafael and HumbertoRafael Vasquez and Humberto Niebla (Paradise Valley, Arizona): Together for six years, it is especially important for this couple to tie the knot as they've struggled with Arizona's ongoing battle to recognize equality for same-sex couples.
Jeromy and BrianJeromy Manke and Brian Jensen (Reno, Nevada): Growing up extremely religious in Nevada, each man faced anti-gay discrimination and now both are active advocates—along with their families—for gay rights within local government.
Megan and LindseyMegan Smith and Lindsey Wagoner (Chattanooga, Tennessee): In 2013, these Southerners founded the advocacy effort, Tennessee Marriage Equality, because they believe that marrying the person you love should be legal in every state.

These couples demonstrate both the deep love that LGBT Americans share, as well as the challenges they face when they're married but living in a state that does not legally recognize their marriage.

The ACLU will help these same-sex couples go the extra mile down the aisle—border-crossing weddings include a hot air balloon ride from Texas and a carriage ride from Tennessee—into a state where it is legal to marry, highlighting the current inequalities that exist between neighboring states.

The idea of contest may seem like an unusually lighthearted approach to equality, but our goals are serious. We designed the contest to put a human face to the patchwork of state laws that allow same-sex couples the freedom to marry in 17 states and the District of Columbia, but deny other same-sex couples that freedom in the rest of the country.

Congratulations to all of the winning couples. We can't wait to see your weddings!

Learn more about marriage for same-sex couples and other civil liberty issuesSign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

© ACLU of Texas, P.O. Box 12905, Austin, Texas 78711

User Agreement | Privacy Statement | Contact us at