Oxfam joins Massachusetts lawsuit against Trump travel ban

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey flanked by Oxfam America CEO Ray Offenheiser and other representatives from groups supporting the states challenge to Trump's travel ban executive order. (Credit: Maura Healey Twitter account/@MassAGo)

Oxfam American is taking on the Trump administration over its executive order temporarily banning the entry of people from seven countries and completely halting Syrian refugee resettlement.

The Boston-based group joined the ACLU of Massachusetts and state Attorney General Maura Healey in a lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump’s executive order. They argue that the order in unconstitutional and should be repealed.

“Our interest in this particular case and this particular executive order has to do with the fact that we believe it jeopardizes our ability to continue to carry out our important mission in many of the places where we are needed most,” said Oxfam America’s head Ray Offenheiser, at a news conference on Tuesday announcing the lawsuit. “We live in an ever-more interdependent world. It is a moment in time when the world should not assume an isolationist position. More than ever we should be linked to the world.”

Massachusetts is the second state to file a suit against the order after Washington state’s attorney general initiated a lawsuit on Monday. The attorneys general of New York and Virginia announced Tuesday they, too, were challenging the order in their respective federal courts. The Massachusetts case will appear before a judge again on Friday, according to the ACLU.

“The executive order is harmful, discriminatory and unconstitutional. It discriminates on the basis of religion and national origin,” Healey said at the news conference. “It denies our citizens access to equal protection and due process under the law. And violates federal immigration law. The role of this office is to uphold the law and the constitution of this state and the United States.”

The ACLU and office of the Attorney General asked Oxfam America to join the lawsuit.

“We thought that it would be helpful to bring them in because it shows what is wrong with the Muslim ban from another perspective,” Christopher Ott, communications director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, told Humanosphere. “Oxfam is an organization that does really important, life-saving work in countries all around the world. We think that the Muslim ban is wrong for a host of reasons, but the way that this affects an organization like Oxfam shows that directly.”

Oxfam condemned the order immediately after it was signed. It decried the decision to halt resettling refugees and targeting of people traveling from five countries where it works. They joined the lawsuit to repeal the order.

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“It was really a no-brainer for us,” Oxfam Press Officer Emily Bhatti told Humanosphere. “Ever since the order was signed we have focused our outrage on the limits of refugee resettlement. But it also impacts our direct work and ability of our staff to travel.”

Their inclusion in the case is for narrow reasons. The legal complaint argues that the order violates Oxfam’s First Amendment rights. Offehneiser’s remarks on Tuesday described Oxfam reliance on the direct input of the people experiencing violence and poverty around the world.

The order denies entry to the people “actively fighting for peace in their countries and seeking security under some of the most dire circumstances around the globe.” Oxfam often brings those people to the U.S. to speak directly with political and business leaders.

“Currently, we live in a world in which the space for dissent and the space for free speech is diminishing,” he said. “In order to represent these issues to our leadership and our policymakers, we have to bring people who can speak to the closing civil society space. We have to bring people because they cannot speak safely in their own countries. … In many cases the people we bring provide critical and timely information to our political leaders.”

The executive order signed by Trump on Friday places a 90 day ban on people entering the U.S. who are from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It also suspends refugee resettlement for 120 days and indefinitely bans the resettlement of Syrian refugees. The Trump administration later clarified that green card holders were not subject to the ban.

A New York Federal District Court Judge issued a stay of removal on behalf of two Iraqi nationals and others “similarly situated” late Friday. The next day the Massachusetts Federal District Court issued a temporary restraining order on behalf of two lawful permanent residents detained at Boston’s Logan Airport. The measures provided short-term reprieve for people from the banned countries trying to enter the U.S., but leaves the order in place. The lawsuits challenge the constitutionality of the order.

“We stand here and with others across this state as a unified Massachusetts community from government, business, medicine, academia, nonprofits and advocacy. All working together to reject this discriminatory and dangerous measure. It’s this solidarity that makes us strong,” said Healey at the news conference.

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“It’s a threat to our constitution. By filing this lawsuit today we are fighting for the principles that made America a beacon of hope and freedom for the world.”

The complaint issued Tuesday added Oxfam to the original case filed late Saturday. It said an Oxfam country director from one of the banned countries was scheduled to brief officials in Washington, D.C., about what is happening on the ground. The trip was canceled because it falls within the 90-day ban. The complaint said Oxfam expects similar problems over the course of the ban, including a Syrian partner invited to speak at events in March. Such restrictions have a direct negative impact on the group’s work, it argues.

A group of U.N. human rights experts issued a joint statement condemning the order. They called it “deeply troubling” and argued that it breaches the United States’s international human rights obligations. And are worried by the sudden halting of the resettlement of refugees at a time when a historically high number of people are displaced from their homes.

“Such an order is clearly discriminatory based on one’s nationality and leads to increased stigmatization of Muslim communities,” according to a statement from the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on migrants, François Crépeau; on racism, Mutuma Ruteere; on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson; on torture, Nils Melzer; and on freedom of religion, Ahmed Shaheed, in the statement.

“The U.S. recent policy on immigration also risks people being returned, without proper individual assessments and asylum procedures, to places in which they risk being subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in direct contravention of international humanitarian and human rights laws which uphold the principle of non-refoulment.”

The statement is more symbolic than impactful. Oxfam is taking a similar tactic by working with its affiliate organizations around the world. They are pressuring their leaders to condemn the order. They, too, cannot directly impact U.S. policies, but the aim is to show a worldwide opposition. Nonprofit groups in the U.S. walk a fine line with their advocacy. Their tax status requires them to be nonpartisan.

“Oxfam is a nonpartisan organization; we don’t take political sides on issues,” said Bhatti. “We condemned the Executive Order on refugees and immigrants, not for political reasons but because it is contradictory to our values and mission as an organization”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.