There are two hours this week that could make an incremental but important difference in the course of U.S. immigration policy: when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), our region’s independent human rights oversight body, holds public hearings at its Washington, D.C. headquarters. As it considers crises across the hemisphere, it intends to hold a hearing on the so-called “caravan” of migrants from Central America, and a second hearing on the U.S. treatment of migrants’ rights advocates. The U.S. government is expected to participate in the first hearing, on December 5, while the “caravan” hearing is regionally focused and will not involve any governments. Together with other organizations, the International Justice Resource Center has launched a toolkit to increase awareness of, and participation in, human rights bodies’ oversight of U.S. immigration policy, including this week’s hearings.
Will these two hearings result in an epiphany for the Trump administration? Will they prompt an immediate end to immigration policies and practices that are not in line with U.S. human rights obligations? No, sadly. There is only so much that can be aired in a one-hour hearing. And while the Trump administration’s participation in IACHR hearings has improved since its initial no-show in March 2017, it has displayed antipathy for human rights oversight.
However, these hearings do represent opportunities – for clarifying and reiterating the U.S. government’s international human rights obligations; for reminding the Trump administration and the public of the minimum standards agreed to by the countries of the region and world; for recognizing the humanity and experiences of the people impacted by U.S. immigration policy; and for providing non-partisan framing and support for public opposition to an increasingly harmful, dehumanizing, and dysfunctional immigration system. Over the past two years, this country has witnessed that public opposition is one of the most effective means of challenging and limiting harmful policies and practices. Human rights oversight provides an essential platform for airing and channeling that opposition. The more attention on the IACHR hearings and other human rights oversight, the greater their potential impact.
This week’s hearings are also a reminder of the standards, statements, and recommendations human rights bodies have already put forth, including in response to Trump administration policies. They are a continuation of the IACHR’s oversight of the United States, one of 35 countries subject to its jurisdiction, and complement the work of various United Nations human rights bodies to bring U.S. immigration policy in line with its international human rights obligations.
International law recognizes the right to seek asylum and also protects migrants’ rights to: life, respect for family life, non-discrimination, freedom from arbitrary detention, humane treatment and conditions of detention, due process in immigration proceedings, and to not be returned to a country where they face risk of ill treatment, among other rights.
Specifically, the IACHR has called on the U.S. to: end and repair family separations, stop its xenophobic and anti-migrant rhetoric, respect the human rights of the “caravan” members, investigate and prevent deaths in immigration detention and at the border, regularize the status of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) beneficiaries, provide a path to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, and rescind executive orders that would limit migration and further militarize the border, among other concerns. It has held numerous hearings on these and other topics related to migrants’ rights. Advocates in the U.S. and across the region have been integral to these gains, including in securing “precautionary measures” against family separations.
At the U.N. level, human rights experts have repeatedly responded to the restrictions on asylum, immigration, and migrants’ rights in the U.S. This year, they have criticized the detention of children and of migrants’ rights defenders, expiration of DACA, restrictions on asylum, and the Trump administration’s hateful rhetoric against the “caravan.” For example, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s 2017 report on its visit to the U.S. reiterated that “[immigration] detention is to be a measure of last resort, necessary and proportionate and be not punitive in nature, and that alternatives to detention are to be sought whenever possible.” Its detailed findings and conclusions provide clear guidance on improving the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers.
International human rights bodies’ oversight provides timely reminders of humanity’s most fundamental values, and can be a powerful tool in stemming and reversing rights violations, even as the national political conversation destabilizes the ground around us. In times of crisis around the world, human rights standards are an anchor, a guiding light, a bulwark against regression, and – when all else fails – a blueprint for rebuilding. Amid the past two years’ rapid, chaotic changes in U.S. immigration policy, international human rights law remains vital bedrock: universal values are not up for debate.
But, if no one is listening, watching, or conveying these principles – if the American public does not send a clear message that it believes in human rights – these strong and clear statements of law and morality easily go unheeded. That would be a mistake, and a missed opportunity at a time when opportunities are few.
Image: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers block the Otay Mesa port of entry from Mexico into the United States early on December 1, 2018 as seen from Tijuana, Mexico. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images