Category Archives: News

10Apr/21

US: End Misguided Public Health Border Expulsions

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An asylum seeking family from Guatemala stands on the Paso del Norte international bridge. After border agents turned the family away at the port of entry, the family swam across the Rio Grande.
© 2021 David Peinado/NurPhoto via AP

(Washington, DC) – The United States government’s summary expulsion of irregular border crossers without regard to their asylum claims or need for protection on ostensible public health grounds puts lives at risk and violates US obligations under international law, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a “question and answer” analysis. The administration of President Joe Biden should immediately stop returning asylum seekers to harm and rescind the March 2020 order invoked to authorize the expulsions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the order under pressure from the administration of former President Donald Trump. The order, which is based on the misapplication of Title 42 of US law – an obscure 1944 public health law not intended for immigration enforcement purposes – has been wrongfully used to give US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) unchecked authority to summarily expel migrants, including asylum seekers, arriving at US land borders.

“President Biden promised during his campaign to restore the right to seek asylum, but close to 100 days into his administration, Trump’s border expulsion policy remains in place,” said Ariana Sawyer, US border researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Biden administration should immediately stop returning asylum seekers to harm, and instead build a humane border regime that protects public health and respects rights.”

CBP agents have so far performed more than 642,700 expulsions under the CDC order, which uses public health as a pretext for dismissing human rights obligations. Under the order, agents have been denying asylum seekers access to nonrefoulement screenings required under US and international law to ensure they are not returned to persecution or torture.

The expulsion policy is only being applied at the border, and other travelers do not face the same restrictions.

At least 13,000 unaccompanied children were expelled during the Trump administration. The Biden administration has since made an exception in processing unaccompanied children but has continued expelling children traveling with family members.

The expulsions of Haitian asylum seekers are particularly concerning. Leaked DHS documents show the agency knew that Haitian asylum seekers would likely face harm if expelled to Haiti, a country the agency identified as suffering from political instability, kidnapping, and violence. Nevertheless, DHS has expelled hundreds of Haitians, including young children and babies, both to Haiti and Mexico.

Human Rights Watch interviews with people summarily expelled and the observations of other groups strongly suggest that the people subjected to summary expulsions are largely Black, brown, and Indigenous people. With no meaningful review or oversight of individual CBP officers’ discretionary decisions, existing structural inequalities in immigration law and access to protection are likely to be even more pronounced.

Migrants are either expelled to their country of origin or dangerous Mexican border cities, where they are routinely targeted by criminal organizations for extortion, rape, assault, and other violence, and where they often lack resources. Haitians are especially easy to identify as non-Mexicans, making them particularly vulnerable to such targeting. And the language differences for Haitians and other non-Spanish-speaking migrants create barriers to finding transportation, housing, case management, and daily necessities.

Migrant shelters in El Paso performing humanitarian reception were misled by DHS under the Biden administration. They said they were told to expect more families to be released into their care. The shelters had prepared for and were ready to receive those families, offering medical checks, help with travel, and quarantine as needed. It was a surprise when the asylum seekers were expelled to Mexico instead.

“They told us we were going to El Paso, [Texas],” said one asylum-seeking father who was unexpectedly expelled to Ciudad Juárez along with dozens of other families after spending days in CBP custody. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. They said, ‘Come on, follow us. Cross this bridge.’ We ended up in Mexico. They tricked us into coming here.” The father said he could not return to his home in Honduras because of threats against his life by gang members.

Biden has since announced he is looking to ramp up expulsions of families. The administration should invest in existing organizations and shelters already successfully performing reception at the border instead.

The expulsion policy has also resulted in family separation. Children traveling with adult relatives other than their parents are also being separated by border agents who are then expelling the adults and classifying the minors as unaccompanied.

The right to seek asylum applies even in times of emergency. The United States should respond to people who arrive at the border in a fair, efficient, and rights-respecting manner that also protects public health, Human Rights Watch said. It should end summary expulsion and return and develop a humanitarian reception system. The US government should also implement public health procedures to limit the spread of Covid-19, provide sufficient resources and structural reforms to process asylum claims fairly and efficiently, and act quickly to address border agency impunity.

“There is no public health justification for singling out asylum seekers and migrants at the border and subjecting them to harsher restrictions than other travelers,” Sawyer said. “By continuing these expulsions, the Biden administration is violating the rights of asylum seekers and should change course immediately.”

 

09Apr/21

US: Congress Advances Slavery Reparations Bill

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A sculpture of African slaves by Ghanaian artist, Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, at the beginning of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

© Dreisen Heath/Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – The US Congress will take a historic step on April 14, 2021 when a congressional committee is to vote on a slavery reparations bill, Human Rights Watch said today. The House Judiciary Committee announced on April 9 its upcoming vote on H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. 

H.R. 40 would establish a federal commission to study the legacy of slavery in the United States and its ongoing harm and develop proposals for redress and repair, including reparations. The bill has been introduced at every congressional session since 1989 but has never before reached a committee vote, normally the first step toward passing legislation. The vote comes amid an acceleration in the reparations movement’s success at the state and local levels.

“The centuries-long injustices of slavery and its legacy, fueling the persistence of racial inequality today, remain largely unaccounted for,” said Dreisen Heath, racial justice researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “As states, cities, and other institutions pursue reckonings, Congress should step up to lead the nation in accounting and atoning for the ongoing impact of slavery. The committee vote on H.R. 40 is a crucial step in that direction.”

In March, the City Council of Evanston, Illinois approved the country’s first reparations program for Black people, and in 2020 California established its own H.R. 40-style commission at the state level to study and recommend reparations for Black Californians. Reparations efforts have also made progress recently in cities such as Providence, Rhode Island; Asheville, North Carolina; Burlington, Vermont; and Amherst, Massachusetts, with bills and grassroots initiatives being considered in many other communities. Religious and other institutions, as well as businesses, have also begun to acknowledge their roles in slavery and to address its continuing harm.   

The Judiciary Committee vote will be the first time that lawmakers cast a ballot to decide whether to bring H.R. 40 to the full House for consideration. In February, a House Judiciary Subcommittee held a hearing on the reparations bill. Human Rights Watch’s Heath testified, imploring Congress to address systemic racism by passing H.R. 40, rather than perpetuating it by continuing to let the bill languish.

The late Congressman John Conyers first introduced H.R. 40 more than 30 years ago on the heels of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations, including cash payments, to Japanese Americans who were incarcerated and forcibly relocated during World War II. However, H.R. 40 did not gain significant momentum until 2019, when the House held its second congressional hearing on the bill. Then, in 2020,  the bill gained unprecedented support as the Covid-19 coronavirus took a disproportionate toll on communities of color and millions of people took to the streets following the police killing of George Floyd to demand an end to structural racism.  

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who took over as the bill’s lead sponsor after Conyers’ death in 2019, mobilized support among legislators, an effort backed by a coalition of over 300 groups including the National African American Reparations Commission, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, Color of Change, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Japanese American internment camp survivors, including former US Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and the actor George Takei, voiced their support. The Amalgamated Bank, the US Conference of Mayors, the Players Coalition, and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, among others, have also expressed support.

President Joe Biden recently expressed support for a study of reparations for slavery, which was also a 2020 campaign promise.

As Human Rights Watch said in its testimony to Congress in February, passing H.R. 40 is essential because the full impact of creating laws and policies that forced hundreds of thousands of Africans to be enslaved in the United States, a gross human rights violation, has never been fully examined, accounted for, or assessed at the national level. Following emancipation, many US cities and states raced to enforce white supremacy and racial segregation, passing repressive laws to limit Black people’s rights.

Organized racial terror by the Ku Klux Klan, white paramilitary groups, and deputized white mobs that the authorities often have not done enough to prevent or account for, helped to maintain racial social order and to corrode Black people’s progress toward equality. Jim Crow laws passed by local and state governments in the 19th and 20th centuries entrenched racial discrimination. Federal, state, and local policy decisions in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as redlining, urban renewal, and highway construction, further contributed to structural racism. And these policies helped create present day economic, education, employment, and health inequalities, as well as housing segregation and everyday abusive policing practices in Black and brown communities.

To date, 175 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of H.R. 40, many more than in previous years. Its Senate companion, S. 40, the first reparations bill to be introduced in the Senate since Reconstruction, has 19 co-sponsors.

“The Judiciary Committee should seize this moment and vote to move H.R. 40 to the House floor for full consideration,” Heath said. “Racial justice and racial healing can only be achieved if the US finally reckons with its racist past and present and takes steps to provide genuine, meaningful repair.”