Biking 1,000 miles for human rights: Jeffrey Heller's journey for refugees

Attracting attention to the issue of refugees and immigrants by riding a bicycle — an unusual bicycle — gives Jeffrey Heller a way to start talking about Human Rights First. Photo: Jeffrey Heller taking a break on his road trip Image: Mario Salazar

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., May 22, 2012 — What would motivate an urbane professional to ride over 1,000 miles? The answer in the case of Jeffrey Heller is complex, but his main motivation is civil rights.

Heller rode his recumbent bike from his home in the Upper West side of Manhattan to Nashville, a journey of 1,007 miles that took him through New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and Tennessee.

This is his second ride for human rights in which his only companions were his stuffed Kangaroo Joie and his bike “The Lightning.” His main goal in this trek is to bring consciousness about political refugees and in general to the immigrant community.

Jeffrey is a lawyer (JD University of Chicago) and a registered nurse (AAS in nursing, Excelsior College, Albany, NY). He has also attained undergraduate degrees from Duke University and Union County College in New Jersey. He had a stellar academic career, having taught law at the Brooklyn School of Law and at Seaton Hall School of Law.

He is currently dedicated to assisting persons trying to gain political asylum in the US. He also does pro-bono nursing work as required. He was named by Time Warner TV Channel NY1 as New Yorker for the Week for May 18.

Married, Jeffrey has three children and his wife has a management job in a retirement fund corporation. Jeffrey tells me that his interest in immigration issues was probably piqued by the fact that his grandparents were immigrants from Russia and he was born near the Canadian border and was raised with people from many cultures. The temple that he attended was also patronized by Canadians as well as Americans.

I interviewed Jeffrey by email after hosting him in my home during his bike journey to Nashville. Following are the questions by me (21CP) and his answers:

21st Century Pacifist: Why these bike trips?

JH: Several interests align to lead me to do these rides (last year Iowa, this year Tennessee, next year ???). I like to bicycle.

I am fascinated by the idea of self-sufficiency and self-propulsion, even though they really are illusions. (No one is self-made. I couldn’t go on such trips without there being infrastructure, industries to manufacture bicycles and road-paving equipment, people to provide food and shelter and services along the way.)

I have been representing and defending refugees and other immigrants since 1983. I left the corporate legal world at the end of 1985 so I would have the independence to take and manage their cases my way. Much about the work is satisfying. But constant battles with bureaucracy wear one down.

And cases that common sense says should be no-brainer wins, can take years to conclude because of government agencies’ institutional culture and laws that defy reason and human nature. Power in this country derives from the People. Going out to talk to some of the People, to take their measure and reason with them, might be more effective than fighting the bureaucracy in agencies and in court in individual cases, one by one by one.

Attracting attention to these issues by riding a bicycle — an unusual bicycle — gives me an opening to talk to people, and attracts donors to Human Rights First. HRF got me into the asylum world in 1983. I have represented hundreds of asylum applicants on their behalf, many dozens on my own, and the rest through the clinics where I taught at Brooklyn Law School and at Seton Hall University.

21CP: What were the three best experiences in your journey?

JH: There are so many rich experiences in such a journey, it’s hard to pick out the three best. Here are three of the best.

The trip itself. I have done the “exercise” thing — but in a world with so much real work to be done, it seems silly to run in circles and lift weights instead of using muscle power to get somewhere and to stack firewood or build with concrete blocks. It is satisfying to spend the day on the road, traveling to a destination, absorbed in the moment, with something new coming into view every instant, the destination getting closer, the act of cycling transporting myself and my cargo from one place to another. I feel great, my head is clear, my knowledge of the people and terrain growing all the time, unlike when one is sealed in a plane or a car and everything is a blur.

Talking with the people. It is surprising and encouraging how people support refugee, immigrant, and human rights if they hear a calm explanation of the realities. Immigrants — including unauthorized immigrants — have lower crime rates, lower disease rates, higher labor force participation rates, higher entrepreneurship rates, and a higher ratio of tax payments to services, than Americans do.

On average, we all receive more in benefits than we pay in taxes; that’s why the government runs a deficit. Even unauthorized immigrants pay taxes, but they cannot receive many of the benefits; they subsidize the rest of us! Immigrants do not take “Americans” jobs (Since when do jobs have a nationality?

Don’t we believe in merit — that if someone can do something better and all employee wage and safety laws are being observed, she should get the job, regardless of background?) What’s more, most unauthorized immigrants are not criminals, or have committed a crime only in the paperwork sense.

About half of the unauthorized overstayed legitimate visas; they are civil violators, not criminals. Those who sneaked in have committed a crime, but it’s not one that it hurt anybody; it’s a made-up crime, the sort of crime that Anatole France mocked in 1894 when he said, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Beyond the immigration issues, our friendly exchanges are not just about immigration, refugees, asylum and human rights. We also talk about bicycles, life in different parts of the country, family ­— all sorts of things. These encounters make me feel welcome, stranger though I am.

Giving presentations, particularly to students. I get to open their eyes, field their questions, and benefit from their fresh perspectives. And I have the satisfaction of knowing that, because they are open to new ideas, I might teach them something that will ripple outward in society and into the future, changing attitudes and ultimately law and policy for the better.

I also asked Jeffrey other questions, which will be published in the next article this week.


Jeffrey Heller interview: The plight of immigrants drives his cause for justice

Jeffrey Heller’s amazing bike ride to support immigration reform


Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, civil engineer, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles - ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket - in 21st Century Pacifist <> at The Washington Times Communities. Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus #TWTC and Facebook at Mario Salazar.

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Mario Salazar

Mario Salazar is a combat infantry Vietnam Vet, world traveler, renaissance reconnaissance man, pacifist, metal smith, glass artisan, computer programmer and he has a Master of Science in Civil/Environmental Engineering.  Now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Montgomery County, Mario will share with you his life, his thoughts, his musing on living in yet another century of change.  He will also try to convey his joy of being old.

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