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RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THE BIDEN-HARRIS ADMINISTRATION AND THE 117TH CONGRESS FROM RUSSIAN-SPEAKING HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS

Adopted January 17, 2021

These days, the United States, the country that welcomed and adopted us as our new home, stands at a critical juncture. In the past few years, its fundamental values, institutions, and its very identity as a democratic nation were challenged. For the first time in recent American history, we have seen its political leadership embracing foreign despots, antagonizing our traditional allies, and turning away from those who are fighting for human rights, freedom, and democracy against authoritarian regimes across the globe. We have seen elected officials making statements that fanned the flames of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, and political violence. This culminated in the botched attempt to overthrow our constitutional system by violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

In this situation, Russian-speaking Community Council and American Russian-speaking Association for Civil & Human Rights, like many other immigrant community organizations, cannot remain silent. Having brought together political exiles and other immigrants from the former Soviet countries since 2011, having worked closely with various US Government agencies and other organizations on the issues of immigrant inclusion, democratic culture and human rights, we join the many Americans calling for urgent and bold actions on the part of the Congress, the incoming administration, and the whole of society to protect our political system from domestic authoritarian threats, now and in the future.

We firmly believe that those responsible for committing and inciting violence in Washington DC on January 6 must be held to account. Further, both houses of Congress and both political parties must carry out a principled assessment of the political rhetoric and government actions of the past four years and unequivocally condemn those statements and decisions that contributed to polarization, hate and violence. The government-led investigation of potential direct and indirect involvement of foreign authoritarian powers and their proxies in the attempts to subvert our political system should also be continued. Finally, we all need to work together to make any form of hate speech, including ambiguities in the assessment of Nazism or the Ku Klux Klan, viewed as morally unacceptable at every level of our society, so that no politician who engages in hate speech can effectively run an election campaign or stay in office.

While rejecting those rhetoric and actions, we also call upon our government authorities to take a hard look at the economic, social, and educational conditions in those parts of our society where the politics of bigotry and hate has taken hold.

As we welcome the transition of power to the Biden-Harris Administration and the 117th Congress, we see it as an exceptional opportunity to renew a reasoned dialogue between the U.S. Government and civil society groups on America’s priorities – and to include previously disregarded voices in this discussion. We are encouraged by President-elect Biden’s pledge to seek national unity and heal the country. For the Russian-speaking community, it is particularly important due to its own internal divisions, not least under the impact of the Kremlin-sponsored propaganda. At the same time, just like for other groups in American society, this propaganda oftentimes falls on an already fertile ground created by prior neglect. Giving Russian-speaking Americans – especially political exiles from Russia, Ukraine, and other former Communist countries, who came to the US in pursuit of human rights and freedoms – a seat at the table in conversations about human rights policy, refugee admission, as well as cultural and community development would be most effective in countering the forces of authoritarianism in America and beyond. This would help our community project the power of America’s example as the land of fairness and equal opportunity into Russia and other authoritarian countries.

While there are many domestic and foreign policy matters that affect us as Americans or recent immigrants, we are focusing our recommendations below upon the three areas of primary concern to our people: human rights in the US relations with Russia; immigration; and culture and the arts.

I. Human rights in the U.S.- Russian relations

1. We urge the Biden-Harris Administration to abide by the House Resolution 958 (agreed to on December 3, 2020), by raising individual cases of Russian political prisoners, as well as the cases of imprisoned civilians on Russian-occupied or controlled territories, in all its meetings with the representatives of the Russian Government and advocating for their release; we also urge it to make this advocacy public, by sharing these individual cases with the media immediately before or immediately after the meetings with Russian Government officials in which these cases are raised. Further, the cases of Ukrainian civilians imprisoned by Russian or pro-Kremlin forces in the temporarily occupied territories of Crimea and East Ukraine should be similarly included in the U.S.-Russia diplomatic agenda, both in bilateral and multilateral settings.

2. The cases of individuals in Russia and Russia-controlled territories who are being persecuted for their activities in support of human rights and democracy without actual imprisonment should also be discussed through diplomatic channels with Russia’s officials and publicized in the official documents of the Department of State and in congressional resolutions. We also encourage the U.S. Government to be raising the cases of those persecuted for political reasons, with or without imprisonment, in international organizations, including the U.N., the OSCE, and G20. The U.S. Government should work through the U.N. system to establish a position of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on politically motivated imprisonments.

3. We call upon the Congress and the Administration to proclaim Russia’s unofficial Day of Political Prisoners (October 30, officially recognized in Russia as the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Persecutions) as the annual day of advocacy for the release of all those imprisoned for their nonviolent political or religious activities in Russia, temporarily occupied Crimea and in the territories de facto under Russian control, the day of recognition of the courage and sacrifice of such people in past and present. This should include political exiles who have contributed to the struggle for human rights and freedoms in former Communist countries or to increasing awareness about this struggle.

4. The U.S. Government should maintain and enforce the sanctions against human rights violators in post-Soviet countries, in accordance with the Sergei Magnitsky Act, Global Magnitsky Act, and Executive Order 13818, including and especially in Russia, in the parts of Ukraine controlled by Russia or pro-Kremlin forces, and in Belarus. At the same time, we urge the U.S. Government to develop and publicize a set of commitments to a significant progress in the U.S.-Russian relations that could follow a meaningful and systematic improvement in the human rights situation in Russia and that would matter to Russia’s society as a whole (such as a commitment to a large-scale increase in the number of temporary U.S. visas issued to Russia’s citizens).

5. We support President-elect Biden’s plan of holding the global Summit for Democracy that would include, in his own words, “civil society organizations from around the world that stand on the frontlines in defense of democracy”. We urge the Administration to include Russia’s leading human rights organizations, which have recently been labeled as “foreign agents” by the Kremlin.

II. Immigration policy

1. We believe that the 117th Congress and the incoming administration should rescind the numerous immigration restrictions, policies, and bans instituted under the previous administration that were tainted by racial and ethnic bias as well as by cruelty toward families and children, and, in the case of such countries as Russia and other post-Soviet states, favored their ruling elites over their refugees and exiles.

2. We also call upon the Administration and the Congress to revisit the issue of a comprehensive immigration reform. Their legislation and executive action in this area should incorporate the key immigrant integration provisions of the CIR bill that was passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013, including its pilot program to promote immigrant integration via the creation of local New Immigrant Councils that were supposed to include representatives of immigrant-led organizations from all significant immigrant communities in a particular territory.

3. We support President-elect Biden’s pledge to raise the annual refugee admissions ceiling for 2022 to 125,000 people and keep raising it afterwards. In view of the grave human rights situation in Russia, in the part of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russian or pro-Kremlin forces, and within its so-called “Union State” which putatively includes Belarus, as well as in several other countries of the region, we urge the Administration to allocate at least 10% of the 2022 ceiling, i.e., 12,500 slots, to the regional quota for Europe and Central Asia.

4. We also welcome the incoming administration’s and Members of Congress’ plans to humanize our asylum policies. This should include the expansion of eligibility criteria for obtaining asylum and the elimination of the one-year limit for asylum application upon arrival; putting an end to prolonged detentions of asylum seekers; increasing the number of immigration judges to reduce asylum cases backlog; restoring the scheduling order for affirmative asylum interviews based on the date on which the case was filed; revisiting the rules that restrict access to public benefits for those immigrants who have resided in the US for less than 5 years; softening these restrictions at least for seniors (65+); and increasing federal funding for supporting services to those waiting for their cases to be resolved.

5. We call upon the new administration to re-establish the annual White House Ethnic/Heritage Days that under the Obama-Biden Administration provided opportunities for immigrant, racial, and ethnic minorities’ organizations to engage with the White House officials on the issues most relevant to those communities. We urge the administration to involve those organizations in setting the agenda for such consultations in advance.

III. Culture and the arts

1. We join the calls of many cultural and arts organizations to the incoming administration to follow in the footsteps of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration that, during the New Deal, commissioned artists and writers to create artwork (some of which was later recognized among the most impactful of its time). Such agencies as the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Department of State, and the Department for Homeland Security are among many other that would greatly benefit from commissioning the works of art from refugee and asylee artists, as well as from political exiles and other immigrants.

2. Immigrant artists and art experts should be included in the U.S. General Services Administration’s Art in Architecture Program decision-making process on the commissioning of artworks for new federal buildings nationwide, as well as for American missions abroad.

3. We call upon the incoming administration and the Congress to establish a National Museum for Immigrant Art and Culture; we propose a special section of the Museum to be dedicated to works created by political exiles from authoritarian countries.

4. We also urge the incoming administration and, specifically, its State Department to start recognizing once again alternative and underground currents of art and culture in authoritarian countries as forms of struggle for human rights and dignity, universal humanity, and justice. We urge the State Department, USAID, and other relevant agencies to identify and develop, in cooperation with arts and culture experts from immigrant communities, the forms of recognition and support for such types of creativity that would help their development without unnecessarily increasing their vulnerability to domestic repression.

The above outline is a summary of our proposals specific to our immigrant communities. We also support many of the recommendations on human rights, immigration, and cultural priorities issued for the incoming administration by leading organizations in these fields, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, National Partnership for New Americans, New York Immigration Coalition, and Americans for the Arts. We look forward to opportunities to discuss our proposals directly with relevant officials in further detail.

Boards of Directors and executive management of the Russian-speaking Community Council and American Russian-speaking Association for Civil & Human Rights

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