EXETER — Bashar Awawdeh was simply trying to assist the Exeter police solve an alleged assault last August at a convenience store where he worked by offering himself as a translator, his attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire claims.
Awawdeh, 25, a Jordanian immigrant, was off duty the night of Aug. 10, 2018, and received a call from his coworker, a fellow immigrant, working at the XtraMart at 72 Main St., saying he needed help dealing with a problem with a customer because he didn’t speak English well, according to a federal lawsuit ACLU-NH filed on behalf of Awawdeh.
Awawdeh left his apartment behind the gas station and found a woman crying outside the store, according to the ACLU’s complaint. The women told Awawdeh his coworker had touched her inappropriately and tried to kiss her, and later police were called to investigate. After Awawdeh offered himself as a translator to police, he was allegedly detained for 90 minutes and was asked by officers if his visa had expired.
Awawdeh came to the United States from Jordan on a six-month tourist visa May 17, 2017, according to the lawsuit. The suit states while visiting he fell in love with an American woman and the two were married June 23, 2018. Though his visa expired by the time he was married, he anticipated obtaining the necessary documents to remain in the country following his marriage, according to the lawsuit.
The suit accuses Exeter police of turning Awawdeh over to Immigrations Custom Enforcement, which detained him for 26 days in Strafford County jail, which doubles as an immigration detention center for northern New England, and later the county jail in Plymouth, Massachusetts. ACLU-NH successfully argued for Awawdeh’s release on bond Sept. 5, 2018, because he was not deemed a flight risk by an immigration judge. The defendants in the suit are three Exeter officers and the ACLU is demanding damages for Awawdeh’s detention for allegedly violating his Fourth Amendment rights.
Awawdeh’s lawsuit is one of several filed by the ACLU as part of its New Hampshire Immigrants’ Rights Project, which provides legal services and promotes the rights to detained immigrants within the state, led by Immigration Legal Fellow SangYeob Kim. The project is composed of a pro-bono bond program, immigration lawyer training to argue in bond hearings in front of the Boston Immigration Court, supporting attorneys assisting immigrants in removal proceedings, litigation and hosting know-your-rights trainings.
Since the project began in 2018, ACLU has successfully argued for the release of 21 undocumented immigrants on bond, said Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette. He said the number of undocumented immigrant detention cases has ballooned under the Trump administration because previous presidents primarily detained individuals suspected of committing violent crimes or were at risk of fleeing a jurisdiction.
“We were asking why were the numbers of detained persons increasing? We had a concern many of these people being detained right there on the Seacoast were not being afforded access to legal counsel,” Bissonnette said. “Being undocumented itself is not a crime. Legal outcomes change fundamentally when you’re not being detained, and you can access proper legal services.”
On other fronts, ACLU-NH Executive Director Devon Chaffee said the organization’s increased full-time staff has allowed its three lawyers to be more proactive in pursuing cases while a field staff organizes broad citizen coalitions to support changes in state policy with respect policy areas such as ending the death penalty, voting rights, criminal justice reform, open government and many others. She said since she came to ACLU-NH six years ago, it has grown from three full-time staff to 13.
“In the past year we’ve certainly been confronted with increased challenges, but these challenges come with more exciting opportunities,” Chaffee said. “We’ve expanded our capacity and we’re getting out more into communities and that is really providing us a new perspective for what’s going on the ground.”
Chaffee said defending civil liberties is a never-ending battle, sometimes even cyclical in nature. One of her biggest areas of concern is recently passed laws that ACLU claims curtail voting rights in the state, House Bill 1264 in 2018 and Senate Bill 3 in 2017. ACLU argues HB 1264 effectively creates a poll tax by requiring a domiciled citizen to demonstrate their intent to reside in the state, such as by registering their motor vehicle within 60 days of an election. SB 3 requires anyone without proof of their domiciled status attempting to register to vote to provide necessary documents within 30 days after an election or face penalties for voter fraud, though the state cannot currently enforce penalties because the law is being contested in court.
“Since (Newberger v. Peterson) in the 1970s the courts have been pretty firm in upholding the rights of college students to vote in this state whether or not they choose to leave after graduation,” Chaffee said. “We are nearly 50 years later and we’re still talking about the voting rights of college students.”
“It’s a principal of our democracy that we don’t tie monetary obligations to voting,” Bissonnette added.
Immediately on the horizon, Chaffee said ACLU-NH is looking to build off its successes in criminal justice reform related to eliminating the wealth-based bail system where previously half of the state’s county jail population was composed of individuals held on $100, $200 or $500 in bail. She said now the organization’s focus will shift toward ending the state’s practice of retroactively charging people to pay the cost of their prison sentence or charging indigent persons to pay for the cost of their public defender. She also highlighted ACLU’s legal fellows’ work with recently released inmates to overcome discrimination in housing and in applying for jobs, for example.
“We’re taking issues on piece by piece in a strategic way,” Chaffee said. “Our goal is to be proactive even as we have to be reactive to certain laws or policies.”
Bissonnette said he sees his work as learning how to take legal successes of today to best position the defenders of civil rights at ACLU for the unknown attempts to infringe upon them tomorrow.
“There are always going to be civil liberties challenges we have to deal with, and they depend on which way the political winds are blowing,” he said. “If the goal is to address inequities in the criminal justice system or defending the civil liberties of people often in marginalized communities, and you’re trying to tackle these issues in a systematic way, then there will always be that ‘next’ issue.”