By William Fisher
Amnesty International USA is calling on the Obama Administration to suspend and review all immigration enforcement programs to halt what it describes as “a pattern of human rights violations.”
In a new report, “In Hostile Terrain: Human Rights Violations in Immigration Enforcement in the U.S. Southwest,” the organization highlights “systemic failures of federal, state and local authorities to enforce immigration laws” equitably and without racial and ethnic profiling. The Report is based on an intensive study of conditions in Arizona and Texas.
Communities living along the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly Latinos, individuals perceived to be of Latino origin and Indigenous communities, are disproportionately affected by a range of immigration control measures, resulting in a pattern of human rights violations, Amnesty reports.
Among the many findings, the report illustrates that “The United States is failing in its obligations to respect immigrants' right to life, ensure access to justice for immigrant survivors of crime, particularly women and children, and recognize the border crossing rights of indigenous communities.”
The Report charges that, according to the U.S. government, “there are approximately 14,500-17,500 people trafficked into the United States each year for labor or sexual exploitation. However, it says, “Barriers caused by breakdowns in the system that identify immigrant survivors of trafficking leave many without any relief from immigration detention and deportation. Of the 5,000 T-visas available annually to survivors of human trafficking, statistics show that only six percent are actually utilized.”
A woman named Carolina is a case in point. Carolina is a Honduran native who was brought to the United States after being repeatedly sold for sex, beaten and drugged, was held for six months in detention in Pearsall, Texas, after immigration agents found her in the trunk of a car crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. While detained, Carolina was denied certification as a trafficking victim because she had originally wanted to come to the United States voluntarily before she was sold into sexual slavery and trafficked into the country.
It was only after a review of her case in February 2011, more than two years after she was discovered in a car trunk, that Carolina's trafficking victim visa was approved, allowing her to remain in the United States and become eligible for mental health and support services. "Now, I can finally begin to heal," Carolina said following her release from detention.
"The culture around immigration in the United States has created a perfect storm — survivors of trafficking and other crimes like domestic violence are increasingly seen as criminals rather than as victims,” said attorney Justin Mazzola, Amnesty International researcher and lead author of the report.
He added, “At the same time, fewer people are willing to report such crimes, as they feel it may expose them to immigration enforcement. In addition, many feel that police will be unable or unwilling to help.”
Immigration control measures increasingly jeopardize individuals' right to life when crossing the border. U.S. policies intentionally reroute migrants from traditional entry points to the most hostile terrain in the Southwest United States, including crossings over vast deserts, rivers and high mountains in searing heat. From 1998 to 2008, as many as 5,287 migrants died while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
The report finds that indigenous communities are left particularly vulnerable to discrimination and other abuses stemming from immigration enforcement. Indigenous peoples, whose traditional territories and cultural communities span the U.S.-Mexico border and necessitate frequent crossings, are often intimidated and harassed by border officials for speaking little Spanish or English and holding only tribal identification documents.
Furthermore, federal immigration programs that engage state and local police in enforcing immigration laws place Latino communities, Indigenous communities and communities of color along the border at risk of discriminatory profiling.
To correct that specific problem, AI is calling on US Customs and Border Protection to work with Tribal Authorities to develop programs to and facilitate the use of Indigenous/ Tribal passports, identity papers and immigration documents for travel across borders, specifically for Tribes in the southwestern border area.
The DHS should ensure that qualifications for these documents are not so burdensome as to create a barrier for Indigenous people to qualify, the report says.
“Because monitoring and oversight of these immigration programs is vastly inadequate, those responsible for human rights abuses are rarely held to account. As a result, such practices, including targeting individuals based on their perceived ethnicity, have become commonplace and entrenched, fostering a culture of impunity that perpetuates discriminatory profiling,” Mazzola said.
The recent proliferation of state laws that target immigrants place them at further risk of discrimination and impedes their right to access education and essential health care services,” he added.
Among its recommendations, in addition to suspending immigration enforcement programs pending a review by the Inspector General, Amnesty is urging the U.S. government to pass legislation that guarantees equitable access to justice and protection for survivors of crime’ respect and facilitate the use of indigenous identity papers and immigration documents for travel across borders; and to ensure, as a matter of priority, that its border policies and practices do not have the direct or indirect effect of leading to the deaths of migrants.
Harassment and racial profiling are everyday inconveniences – and worse – for people in the border region. For example, in April 2011, a person we’ll call Alfred – a US citizen of Dominican descent, went to assist three of his father’s employees who had been involved in a car accident. The Texas State Trooper responded to the accident and was already at the scene when Alfredo arrived. Alfredo described to Amnesty International how the trooper continually delayed completing the accident report: “I thought it was a typical accident but it took longer... I asked the Trooper how long we would have to stay and he said, ‘just a little more’ and never said why.”
After about three hours, four sheriff’s deputies arrived and surrounded Alfredo and the rest of the group with their vehicles. Minutes later an unmarked silver pick-up truck pulled up and a man got out who was dressed in khaki – Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents often wear khaki uniforms.
According to Alfredo, “He was very disrespectful. He asked, ‘How are you in the United States?’ and said, ‘Sit down or I’ll hit you’ to everyone. Initially he didn’t believe that I was a US citizen. When he found out that I was, he just said, ‘I’m sorry’ and identified himself as an ICE officer by showing me his badge… He tried to intimidate everyone. He made comments that we were all illegal. He treated us worse than animals.”
The Report is particularly critical of two of the more controversial immigration enforcement programs currently being implemented: The Secure Communities Program and an older one known as 287(g).
Under the 287(g) program, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in effect deputizes local law enforcement officers to act as proxies for DHS officers in enforcing immigration laws. The Govermment see 287(g) as a force multiplier. In 2008, the Colorado state 287(g) unit alone made 777 immigration arrests. In that same year the entire ICE investigations office based in Denver, which covers all of Colorado and several other states, made a total of 1,594 arrests. In Maricopa County, Ariz., the local ICE detention and removal manager supervises five ICE deportation agents, who are supplemented by 64 additional locally paid county jail 287(g) officers who also identify and process criminal aliens.
But many police and sheriff’s departments strongly oppose the program because they say the training is inadequate for one of the most complex legal disciplines, and that both the training and the operation of the program suck scarce resources away from their main mission, which is maintaining the peace.
The second controvsersial program is known as Secure Communities, or SECOM. This program facilitatives local law officers to routinely enter into a DHS database the particulars of persons arrested locally so that their immigration status can be verified.
SECOM was designed to aprehend undocuented immigrants who had committed serious criminal act. But the most recent analyses indicate that a large proportion of those caught up in this dragnet were guilty of small traffic violations – for example, a bropken trail light – or equally petty crimes such as minor shoplifting.
These people are being rounded up, separated from their families, and incarcerated in immigration detention facilities, where they will wait for periods sometimes exceeding a year, for an immigration judge to decide whether to deport them, grant them asuylum in the US, or dispose of their case in some other way.
The immigration authorities have been severely criticized for operating detention facilities that are jail-like, not suitable for families, unhygiencic in terms of food and the availability of medical treatment, and frequently the scene of sexual harassment.
Many of these detention centers are operated by private for-profit prison corporations.
The Obama Administration has urged Immigration and Customs Enforcement to show more “descretion” in deciding who shall be held and who it is safe to grant bail. Since then, inflow into the detention centers has slowed marginally, but observers point out that President Obama has deported more people that all other US presidents combined.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and her deputy in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John T. Morton, have made numerous pledges to undertake a major reorganization of the nation’s immigration programs, but thus far there is little to show for it in the way of tangible action.
Mazzola seemed to agree that the often inappropriate words and actions of ICE officers may be a cultural throwback to the pre-DHS days when a notorious and much-feared agency known as the Immigration and Naturalization Authority (INS) became the most secret prison system in the US. Author Mark Dow’s riveting book on the subject is titled “American Gulag.”