UN Scolds Washington for War on Migrants

The United Nations released a report this month scolding the United States for disregarding international law and violating the human rights of migrants.

The United Nations released a report this month scolding the United States for disregarding international law and violating the human rights of migrants.

Jorge Bustamante, Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, noted serious concerns about deportation and detention policies, especially in light of the fact that cases of indefinite detention were common. Other concerns included lack of due process, imprisonment of children and infants, imprisoned migrants being subjected to solitary confinement, possible sleep deprivation, and exposure to extreme heat and cold.

"The United States lacks a clear, consistent, long-term strategy to improve respect for the human rights of migrants," Bustamante’s report stated.

The report was written after a controversial fact-finding mission in the United States last April. The visit was arranged to investigate concerns regarding the human rights of the country’s 37.5 million migrants, including arbitrary detention, separation of families, substandard conditions of detention, procedural violations in criminal and administrative law proceedings, racial and ethnic discrimination, arbitrary and collective expulsions and violations of children’s and women’s rights.

"The report makes it clear that the U.S. government’s laws, policies and practices are the main culprit for the persistent abusive treatment and persecution experienced by immigrant families, workers and communities," stated Colin Rajah, director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights’ (NNIRR)International Migrant Rights and Global Justice Program. "The findings are an indictment of U.S. immigration laws and enforcement and reflect the complaints we have documented from around the country."

The NNIR released a report, "Over-Raided, Under Seige: U.S. Immigrations Laws and Enforcement Destroy the Rights of Migrants, on Jan. 18 which documented over 100 stories of human rights abuses which lend evidence to the "humanitarian crisis" immigrants are faced with in the United States.

According to Jennifer Turner, who gave a statement on March 7 to the Human Rights Council on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Department of Homeland Security detained 322,000 migrants in 2007.

"The growth in immigration detention has resulted in highly problematic conditions of confinement, such as grossly inadequate health care, physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, discrimination, and racism," said Turner.

Something to hide?

Bustamante met resistance from U.S. officials on the last day of his trip to the U.S. when he was denied access to detention facilities in Texas and New Jersey. In a letter to U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Zalmay Khalilzad, Bustamante stated: "Both these visits were part of the approved itinerary agreed with the government of the United States. In neither case has the [U.S.] Government consulted me on the changes, or provided any explanation of the necessity for such cancellation."

In an interview with The New York Times Bustamante stated, "My interpretation is that someone in the United States government is not proud of what is happening in those centers."

While a State Department official confirmed that the visitations were arranged by the government, Monmouth County (NJ) sheriff Joseph W. Oxley accused Bustamante of canceling the visit—something the UN investigator has flatly denied. The visit to T. Don Hutto immigration detention prison in Texas, run by Corrections Corp. of America (the country’s largest for-profit prison system), was allegedly cancelled due to a lawsuit against the facility pending at the time—though a spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency stated the visit had never been approved.

The lawsuit lawsuit, filed by the ACLU on behalf of 26 immigrant children detained at the prison with their parents, was settled in August. The ACLU described it as a "landmark settlement", which improved conditions for children and their families. Some improvements include: children are no longer required to wear prison uniforms, they are no longer threatened by guards to be separated from their families, and they are now afforded privacy curtains for when they use the bathroom.

All of the children previously detained were released days before the settlement was reached.

"I feel much better, I feel tranquil, I can do things now I couldn’t do there," said Andrea Restrepo, a 12-year-old child from Colombia held with her 9-year old sister. "I am trying to forget everything about Hutto. I feel free. It was a nightmare."

Barbara Hines, Director of the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, said that the experience at Hutto was "an indescribable trauma for many of the children we represented."

Washington "disappointed" over report

Jan Levin, a senior officer with the U.S. delegation to the UN, immediately issued issued a response to Bustamante’s highly critical report.

"I regret to say that my government was disappointed with the Special Rapporteur’s report, which contains significant misstatements and misinterpretations of U.S. law and policy," stated Levin.  

She criticized Bustamante for not taking advantage of information available to him through government channels. But Bustamante did meet with numerous local, state and federal officials. What Washington might not agree with is the information gathered from migrants who have been detained, as well as numerous human rights organizations and other non governmental organizations.

But Levin’s view is that the report was too negative, and as a result presented "an incomplete and biased picture of human rights of migrants in the country."

Kelly Nantel, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Bustamante failed to include in his report migrant protections that are in place, such as the right to challenge detention and deportation policies. But Nantel’s claims of due process for migrants were fully addressed in the report.

"In 2005, 65 percent of immigrants appeared at detention hearings without benefit of legal counsel," the UN report stated. "Despite the adversarial and legally complex nature of removal proceedings and the severe consequences at stake, detainees are not afforded appointed counsel."

The UN’s report offered a number of recommendations for Washington to help it comply with international law and improve human rights protections for migrants. Eliminating mandatory detention, not imprisoning families with children, and ensuring legal counsel for detained immigrants would be a good place to start. Whether the Bush Administration attempts to address and fix these problems is highly unlikely, while not much more can be expected by the Democratic lawmakers. In fact, Rep. Heath Schuler (D-NC 11th) has recently proposed the Secure America Through Verification and Enforcement (SAVE) Act, which could threaten imprisonment to church officials, humanitarian workers and anyone else offering assistance to undocumented migrants by designating these compassionate citizens as "alien smugglers."

What’s clear is that there is a lot of human rights work to de done on behalf of migrants in this country. The upcoming election can serve as a vehicle for this, while the UN’s report can serve as a blueprint.

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org.