Blog: Wasserstein Fellow

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September 24, 2020

Sabrina Mahtani on Gender & Prison Alternatives


The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the Thailand Institute of Justice recently released a Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures, a handbook with information and guidance on alternatives to incarceration. Part of a Criminal Justice Handbook Series, the toolkit approaches incarceration as a last resort, providing support and guidance to make sure that women are not detained or imprisoned unnecessarily. “Now more than ever, with the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, there is a need to look towards non-custodial measures for women offenders to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system, maintain the health and safety of those in prison and ensure effective rehabilitation,” says the press release on the Thailand Institute of Justice’s website.

Human rights lawyer Sabrina Mahtani led the drafting and research, which took place in large part at Harvard Law School while she was a joint Fellow-in-Residence in the Human Rights Program and the Office of Public Interest Advising. You can learn more about Sabrina at the end of this post.

Sabrina recently spoke with HRP about developing the toolkit and where she hopes it will make the most impact.

In September 2020, the Thailand Institute of Justice and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime held an expert meeting in Bangkok to review the material for the report. Mahtani occupies the back row, second from left. Photo Credit: Thailand Institute of Justice.

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September 17, 2014

Student Perspective: Supporting the Transnational Fight to Protect Workers’ Rights

Posted by Lily Axelrod, JD '15

One January afternoon in 2012, two hundred men and women gathered at the Captain Morgan Bar in the sunny, Mexican coastal town of Topolobampo, Sinaloa. Their spirits were strong; recruiters had arrived to sign up workers for temporary H-2 visas to the United States. In a region where unemployment is high and the minimum wage is less than $5 a day, the recruiters brought hope. Applicants handed over deposits of several hundred dollars, representing years of savings or serious debt.

Weeks went by, and then months, as recruiters promised the Sinaloans that the visas were “almost ready.” But there were no jobs, and no H-2 visas. By April, it became clear: hundreds of applicants had been defrauded.

Atzin Gordillo, at left, an organizer with ProDESC, gives a presentation to the workers of the Sinaloa Coalition about their rights under the H-2 visa program.

Atzin Gordillo, at left, an organizer with ProDESC, gives a presentation to the workers of the Sinaloa Coalition about their rights under the H-2 visa program.

This summer, I had the opportunity to support the Sinaloan workers as a fellow with Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (ProDESC), a human rights organization based in Mexico City. Having lived in Mexico and studied social movements there, I was drawn to ProDESC’s model, which balances a broad international vision with a focus on meaningful participation and leadership from local, marginalized communities. I contributed this summer to the organization’s Transnational Justice for Migrant Workers project, which seeks to promote humane, legal migration by protecting migrant workers’ human rights.

My work focused specifically on the H-2 temporary worker visa program, one of the few avenues for Mexicans to work legally in the United States without advanced degrees or immediate family members with status. ProDESC has been tackling abuses related to the program since 2007. Due to fear of reporting and lack of oversight, it is impossible to know how many applicants were promised visas and never received them, but ProDESC believes the problem is widespread. Even when job offers are legitimate, workers often go into debt to pay illegal “recruitment fees,” and fear blacklisting or violent retaliation if they speak up about their rights.

For years, both the Mexican and American governments turned a blind eye to these abuses, leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation, human trafficking, and forced labor. But ProDESC and the Sinaloan workers have been collaborating to change the status quo. In 2013, with support from ProDESC’s community organizers and attorneys, the workers formed a coalition and brought a groundbreaking collective criminal complaint against the fraudulent recruiter operating in Sinaloa. That coalition, in turn, strengthened ProDESC’s domestic and international policy advocacy to prevent abuse in the H-2 visa program overall.

Together, their activism captured the attention of both the Mexican government, which recently issued new regulations targeting recruiters, and the U.S. Departments of Labor and State, which have committed to cooperate with their Mexican counterparts and with NGOs to educate migrant workers about their rights. Continue Reading…

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