National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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U.S. Submits its First Human Rights Review to U.N.

September 02, 2010 - Posted by Brittney Nystrom



The United States submitted its first-ever report to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on August 20, evaluating how the nation is fulfilling its human rights obligations.  Such reports are now required every four years from all United Nations members as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, established in 2006 and conducted through the UN Human Rights Council.  Essentially, this reporting process affords nations the chance to self-evaluate their human rights record.  The U.S. report will next be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, this fall.


Input to inform the report was gathered over the past several months in consultation with civil society organizations with diverse viewpoints, constituencies, and locations.  Summaries of the various consultations are posted by the U.S. Department of State on their website (including one in which the Forum participated, addressing the rights of migrants).  According to the State Department, the review “provides an opportunity to reflect on our human rights record and we hope will serve as an example for other countries on how to conduct a thorough, transparent, and credible UPR presentation.”


Although human rights obligations cover an enormous range—from voting rights to rights of indigenous persons—the United States found space to discuss the human rights of immigrants.  This inclusion has already ruffled some political feathers.  By dutifully noting the Department of Justice’s courtroom battle against Arizona’s “papers please” law in their report, the government so upset Arizona Governor Jan Brewer that she wrote a letter to Secretary of State Clinton demanding that the reference to the Arizona law be stricken.  Gov. Brewer is running for election this November.


Beyond the reference to the embattled Arizona immigration law, numerous mentions of the rights of immigrants and the national commitment to ensuring equality before the law for all are sprinkled throughout the 25 pages of the report. 


In a section on post-9/11 practices, the government proclaims its commitment to protect the rights of and to combat discrimination against Muslim, Arab-American and South Asian American persons.  By way of example, the report cites limitations on country-specific travel bans and an ongoing review of how law enforcement agencies use race and national origin. 


Another section discusses efforts to achieve excellence in education for children for whom English is a second language and who may face language discrimination in public schools. 


The most extensive discussion of human rights commitments to immigrants falls under the heading of “Values and Immigration.”  Alongside the deserved self-recognition for its acceptance of millions of refugees and for undertaking to reform the immigration detention system, the government acknowledges “challenges in developing and enforcing immigration law and policies that reflect economic, social, and national security realities.” 


Unfortunately, these challenges will persist as long as we lack meaningful reform to our creaking immigration system; the current laws are a far way off from current realities.  Many enforcement efforts the Government touts as improvements would not be necessary—or would not be so overwhelming—if our immigration system got the reform it requires.  Reforming our immigration detention system, for example, is a far more formidable task because immigrants who have been living and working in our country for years are thrown in jail instead of given work visas.  (We recently assessed the government’s limited progress in making the immigration detention system more civil here and here.)


Some recognized “improvements” in the government’s report refer to flawed programs that should be scrapped altogether.  State and local police operating under 287(g) agreement wouldn’t need the better oversight or stronger guidelines touted in the report if the government did the right thing and terminated this deeply flawed program.  (Learn more about why the program is inherently flawed here and here.


On a note of optimism, the United States assures the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that change is coming for our immigration system.  This is a welcome (and hopefully not hollow) assurance.  In the words of the report,


“President Obama remains firmly committed to fixing our broken immigration system, because he recognizes that our ability to innovate, our ties to the world, and our economic prosperity, depend on our capacity to welcome and assimilate immigrants.  The Administration will continue its efforts to work with the U.S. Congress and affected communities toward this end.”


That is a commitment we hope is fulfilled when the United States submits its next scheduled UPR report in 4 years.


Image by Flickr user Marionzetta.


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