Sunday, May 1, 2011

Migrants’ Rights Are Human Rights … in the U.S.

Migrants are human beings too. That would seem to be self-evident. But both governments and non-state actors often behave as if migrants are mere commodities—to be traded, recruited, trafficked, exploited, pitied, demonized, scapegoated, or expelled as conditions suit. They may be denied fundamental rights like housing, food, health care, or education. If they are women, they may be at risk of new violence even as they attempt to escape violence at home or in conflict situations.

Workers Organizing for their Rights

Today, May 1, is International Workers’ Day. Violations of workers’ rights make all workers even more vulnerable to human trafficking, as noted in this statement by OSCE Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Maria Grazia Giammarinaro (photo, right). In response to xenophobia and racial, ethnic, linguistic, and religious discrimination against noncitizen migrants and members of their communities, migrants and their supporters throughout the world organize to resist, engage in popular education, and advocate for change.

Many such workers are women migrants in the global economy. Note, for example, the long, increasingly visible struggle for human rights among “transnational women” who engage in domestic work. They have advocated for a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York State and have helped develop international standards for decent working conditions for domestic workers.

The U.S. Struggle for Migrant Human Rights

Global activism on the human rights of migrants includes those who resist rising anti-immigrant fervor and state and local laws that discriminate against immigrants and their communities in the U.S. as well. As posted here, dozens of community organizers, human rights advocates, immigration lawyers, labor representatives, students, and scholars gathered at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston last October for a two-day workshop, “Beyond National Security: the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of Noncitizens.”

The workshop was hosted by the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy and sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the Human Rights Interest Group of the American Society of International Law. Rachel Rosenbloom (photo, right) and yours truly, IntLawGrrl Hope Lewis, co-chaired the gathering. IntLawGrrls guest blogger Mariah McGill was institute administrative coordinator. Post-JD Fellow Jane Moisan researched international legal standards and background materials as well as helped with drafting. Participants shared existing projects and strategies across disciplines and activist divides. They also debated whether or not international human rights approaches would be useful strategically for future social justice work in the U.S.

Participants identified those human rights issues they would most like to see prioritized in a set of “guiding principles” on the economic, social, and cultural rights of immigrants. Why focus on ESC rights? In the U.S. context, economic, social, and cultural rights generally go unrecognized or unfulfilled. See, for example, my post on the U.S. State Department’s recent rhetorical recognition of economic and social rights here.

For noncitizens and their communities in the U.S., economic, social, and cultural pressures are increasing at state and local levels (housing restrictions, educational and language restrictions, limitations on access to health care, exclusion from coverage under certain labor laws, as well as discriminatory laws infringing on freedom of movement). The idea, it is clear, is to pressure noncitizens to “self-deport” by violating their economic, social, and cultural human rights.

The Boston Principles on the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of Noncitizens

Thus, the “Boston Principles” were born. We began by simply compiling key relevant provisions from the core international human rights instruments, including the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. We also drew on important legal standards and interpretive documents such as:

The International Labour Organization Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

CERD General Recommendation No. 30: Discrimination Against Non-Citizens

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Dr. Jorge Bustamante, Mission to the United States of America

Final Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Noncitizens, Professor David Weissbrodt


The Boston Principles are comprised of 30 provisions (the 30 Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights served as one model for the framework). However, the participatory nature of the drafting and comment process resulted in some draft provisions that were highly detailed and lengthy in order to accommodate comments. We decided, instead, to keep the principles themselves relatively short, while also providing more fully developed implications in “understandings” beneath each principle.

A draft was opened for comment on International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2010 and closed on Martin Luther King Day, 2011. We have, however, also benefited from further presentations and comments on the Boston Principles and expect to continue to do so.

Audience and Action

We were inspired by the many local and state efforts to incorporate international human rights instruments into city council resolutions and state and local legislation. We therefore hope that community organizers, immigrants’ rights groups, U.S.-focused human rights NGOs, unions, educators, and individuals will use them in similar efforts or in other advocacy strategies.


Equality and Non-discrimination. We began with the premise that migrants like human beings belonging to other categories, carry with them fundamental human rights and should not be discriminated against.

Intersectionality. We took an “intersectional” or “multidimensional” approach, recognizing the complex identities of migrants and members of their communities. They intersect categories of race, ethnicity, language, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, class, age, and national origin. As social constructs, these identity categories can shift over time, they can be the subject of compound discrimination, or they can involve the prioritization of one or more categories over others depending on context.

We also highlighted ways in which certain categories of noncitizens and their communities can be affected by human rights violations. The Boston Principles include specific provisions on the rights of racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and other minority groups, indigenous peoples, women, children, and persons with disabilities.

Interdependence. The Boston Principles recognize and are informed by, the interdependence of economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights. For example, they recognize that violations of due process and other human rights in deportation proceedings can have profound effects on rights such as family unity and access to health care.

Violations in deportation proceedings even impact U.S. citizens as discussed in this piece on the wrongly deported by Rachel Rosenbloom.

On one hand, the Boston Principles are an indictment of current realities in U.S. federal, state, and local laws and policies. On the other, they are also a reflection of existing legal obligations that can be promoted by advocates. They are both a pragmatic and an aspirational vision that a better United States is possible.

Selected Resources
►Hope Lewis & Rachel Rosenbloom, The Boston Principles: An Introduction, 1 Notre Dame Journal of International, Comparative, and Human Rights Law (April 2011)

►The Boston Principles on the Economic, Social, and Cultrual Rights of Noncitizens

A Guide to the Boston Principles (short guide prepared for readers of the December 10, 2010, Draft Principles)

►Georgetown University Law Center, International Migrants Bill of Rights Initiative, "International Migrants Bill of Rights" (2010). Georgetown Law Student Series. Paper 7
(collaboration among students at Georgetown University Law Center, London School of Economics, American University of Cairo, and Hebrew University; focuses on global migrants’ rights)


Anonymous said...

At The Advocates for Human Rights we couldn't agree more. As we noted in our report for the US's UPR review, the US immigration system is riddled with systemic failures to protect human rights. These failures are embedded in the statutory framework, administrative policies, and, of course, in the broader immigration debate which rests on the assumption that people leave their human rights at the border when then enter our country.

"I do immigration policy, not human rights," the head of one national philanthropic institution told me not too long ago. Wow.

The human rights framework has the power to get us out of the morass that we've been embroiled in throughout the CIR debate. It helps us get out of the trap we set for ourselves when we talk about immigrants in terms of what they cost or contribute to the US. It sets a baseline below which we simply cannot go when creating or executing the laws.

Nothing in the last decade of immigrant rights work has made me happier than seeing the Detention Watch Network undertake its first community organizing campaign using the human rights framework - Dignity Not Detention.

Human rights help us hold the line against erosion of human dignity. Consider what things would look like had they been on the table when Congress debated the changes to the INA in 1996. Would suspension of deportation, with its consideration of the impact of deportation on the unity of the family, have been eliminated? Would mandatory detention provisions have passed muster when viewed through the lens of prohibitions against arbitrary detention? Would the expansion of the aggravated felony definition have survived had we talked about the impact on the right to non-refoulement?

It is high time that human rights found their way into the immigration debate.

Hope Lewis said...