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Refugee Justice League of Utah pledges to defend immigrants' rights

More than 50 Utah lawyers have volunteered to be part of the inaugural Refugee Justice League of Utah, a founder announced Tuesday. Participating counsel will defend, pro bono, refugees' and immigrants' civil, religious and constitutional rights.
More than 50 Utah lawyers have volunteered to be part of the inaugural Refugee Justice League of Utah, a founder announced Tuesday. Participating counsel will defend, pro bono, refugees' and immigrants' civil, religious and constitutional rights.
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MURRAY — Count on the newly formed Refugee Justice League of Utah to push back against any restrictions on refugees' rights, such as mandatory registration of Muslims in the United States as put forward by President-elect Donald Trump.

Members of the new organization — 50 diverse, nonpartisan attorneys and other professionals — have volunteered to defend civil, religious and constitutional rights of refugees and immigrants discriminated against because of their religious beliefs and/or national origins.

Jim McConkie, a civil rights attorney and a founding member of the organization, said the group's efforts are particularly appropriate "in a state founded by those who fled persecution and sought religious freedom. These basic rights define the type of safe, welcoming community that Utah should be."

In the aftermath of a divisive presidential campaign, some Utahns have been harassed by co-workers, bullied at school, physically threatened, accosted with profanity and even threatened with removal of hijabs (headscarves), McConkie said at a press conference at his law offices Tuesday.

"It is important that refugees and immigrants who have escaped terrible conditions in war-torn countries know that they are safe and welcome here in Utah, and that we value their presence as well as the contributions they make to our community," McConkie said.

The league's initial efforts will be concentrated in the Muslim community. As Muslims in Utah come together for Friday prayers, religious leaders will explain the group's role and willingness to help.

Anyone who has been harassed or targeted due to their status as refugees or their religion will be encouraged to fill out an incident reporting form that will be forwarded to Refugee Justice League of Utah attorneys to determine a course of action.

That may mean contacting an employer if an employee experiences workplace harassment based on their religion or national origin. It may mean writing letters to a school administrator if a child is bullied at school or even turning issues over to law enforcement if something criminal has occurred.

The league stands ready to conduct trainings or provide other assistance to resolve problems, although going to court remains an option.

If an executive order that calls on Muslims to register with the government were to materialize, civil rights attorneys nationwide — and in Utah — would fight it in court, McConkie said.

"This is something that’s intolerable, and it is something we would oppose vigorously,” he said.

Muslim community leader Noor Ul-Hasan said she has lived in Utah for 26 years. Even though Utahns are largely welcoming and she is well acquainted with constitutional protections and laws, "I wake up with stress and anxiety almost every day since the election.” She is particularly stressed about what she will encounter during a planned trip out of state.

For refugees who come from countries where people who fight oppression do so at the risk of great personal peril, they are unaccustomed to protections and rights afforded people in the United States.

McConkie said it will take time and ongoing outreach to encourage people facing discrimination or acts of hate to come forward to religious leaders or designated board members at mosques and work with attorneys to seek remedies.

In meetings with Muslim religious leaders and members of the justice league, Ul-Hasan said she explained to imams and mosque board members that "this is something that will help protect you. You kind of have to be a little over the fear aspect and the retaliation aspect because if you let it continue it will just spread more in terms of that type of treatment."

McConkie and his law partner, Brad Parker, also a founding member of the league, each emphasized that the group is not political in nature. A wide array of attorneys have stepped forward to help, some who specialize in education, employment and civil rights. The group has a wide representation of faiths as well.

For immigrants and refugees who are not Muslim, the organization will continue to refine its outreach efforts to ensure their rights are upheld, he said. They “need to know that they have friends who are willing to help them,” McConkie said.

Parker said Utahns should help new Americans, not make them feel unwelcome or afraid.

"Harassment and discrimination are not only contrary to our moral values, they are illegal,” Parker said.