Who Can Do This

  • Any staff member
  • Any member of the House or Senate

Difficulty: Difficult


Casework can provide members of Congress the opportunity to serve their constituents, raise the profile of human rights in their districts, and establish foreign affairs leadership credentials. Even in cases where little progress can be made at the policy level, members of Congress, can ensure that to individual constituents, human rights defenders, refugees and asylees receive appropriate benefits and relief.


Human rights casework includes: “adopting” – or becoming an advocate for a Prisoner of Conscience through the Defending Freedoms Project coordinated by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission; helping a constituent or the relative of a constituent to apply for and receive appropriate consideration of refugee status or asylum; advocating for the fair, humane, and lawful treatment of a constituent who is arrested or imprisoned abroad; obtaining the release and return of child abductees; and linking those who have fled abuse and repression with appropriate services and benefits.

Good Practices

  • Ask the U.S. embassy to send a representative to attend the trial of a constituent or human rights defender. It is unlikely to do so absent
  • Ask the U.S. embassy in the relevant country to provide you with regular updates and tracking of a specific case, so it doesn’t get lost in the system.
  • Showing interest in the country and its challenges, rather than approaching one case in isolation, can help build a constructive relationship between the member and the U.S. embassy in that country, as well as that country’s embassy in Washington.
  • Understand the power of personal connections and use them to motivate members. One-on one meetings with someone who has suffered repression or abuse can touch the heart, change opinions, and lay the groundwork for sustained political action.
  • If a U.S. official attends a trial and witnesses irregularities or lack of due process, ensure the official says so publicly and on the record, so the foreign government cannot claim that U.S. officials were present and failed to register an objection.
  • If appropriate, use the press to generate interest in the story. You can publish your letter online, send out a press release, hold a media event, tweet about the issue, write an op-ed, or use any other media tool in your office’s arsenal. This will help ensure your boss get the credit he or she deserves, and potentially encourage action by the administration.

Instructive Examples

  1. Obtaining the Release of a U.S. Citizen Imprisoned Abroad. Alan Gross was an American contractor working on a USAID-funded democracy-promotion project in Cuba. Arrested in 2009, he was charged with crimes against the Cuban state and imprisoned for five years before being set free as part of a larger thaw with Cuba. His release was the result of years of concerted effort by Sen. Patrick Leahy and Senate Appropriations Committee staffer Tim Rieser, including regular visits and phone calls to Gross in prison, meetings with senior U.S. and Cuban officials, coordinating a small group of savvy Senators, Representatives and their staff, and development of a policy options memo for the National Security Council.
  2. Negotiating the Return of Kidnapped Children. Muhammad Ismail Abequa, a naturalized American citizen, strangled his wife, Nihal, in New Jersey before fleeing to Jordan with their two children. Sen. Frank Lautenberg took a series of actions on behalf of Nihal’s sister, a constituent, who sought custody of the children: he held meetings with the Jordanian ambassador and King of Jordan, wrote letters to the Jordanian Government and the U.S. State Department, offered a floor amendment to the annual foreign operations appropriations bill ( Amdt. 2287 to H.R. 4426, 103rd Congress, adopted by voice vote but dropped in conference), placed a brief hold on a widely-supported debt relief package for Jordan, and sent a staff member to Jordan, who worked successfully with the American Ambassador to Jordan and Jordanian officials to secure the children’s release. He engaged directly, and used his position on the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee to advance this human rights agenda.
  3. Activist Becomes Ambassador. In 1991, East Timorese resistance leader Constancio Pinto was jailed and tortured by the Indonesian Army. After escaping to the United States, where he studied at Brown University and testified before Congress about the atrocities perpetuated against his nation, he was in danger of being deported. Members interceded on his behalf with the Immigration and Nationality Service to ensure his visa was extended and that he was eventually issued a green card. When East Timor’s independence was restored in 2002, Pinto became the first Timorese senior diplomat ever posted to Washington, D.C. He subsequently served as the Timorese Ambassador to the United States and is currently the Minister of Commerce, Industry and Environment in East Timor.
  4. Bringing Attention to an Issue. Even if your boss can’t help free a prisoner, their advocacy can still advance human rights. Peng Ming was a Chinese democracy activist who fled to Thailand, and then the United States, after his release from Chinese prison in 2000. While visiting family in Thailand in 2004, Peng was lured into Burma and abducted by Chinese agents. Members of Congress representing Peng’s family in the U.S. helped draw attention to his case, and the state of Chinese human rights in general, by lobbying the U.S. Government to secure his release. Although Peng died in prison in 2016, advocacy on his behalf generated important coverage for human rights in papers ranging from the Washington Post to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.