This week, Human Rights Watch released its annual report on the state of human rights around the world. In addition to highly critical reports on Syria, Central African Republic and other countries with repressive regimes or violence conflicts, the New York-based advocacy group highlighted a particular issue in the United States: the abuse of immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, under current U.S. policies and conditions. The non-profit group, while describing itself as non-partisan, stated that it supports comprehensive immigration reform.
On Thursday, Washington Post immigration reporter Pamela Constable spoke with Antonio Ginatta, the U.S. Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, about the issue of human rights and immigrants in the United States.
WP: Most Americans might think of human rights as an issue in repressive foreign countries, not so much in the U.S. Can you explain the link your organization sees between human rights and American immigration reform?
Ginatta: We see the intersect between human rights and immigration policy to be varied and vast. The status quo on immigration breeds human rights violation in so many circles. First we highlight the importance of family unity. In the world of human rights, family is seen as the natural and fundamental group that deserves protection, but [U.S.] immigration policy doesn’t focus on family unity in the same respect.
Immigration judges are not allowed to consider family unity to the extent we think is needed to protect human rights. In the case of a very minor or very old criminal conviction, family ties don’t matter. Even if someone has close U.S. citizen family members, the removal still takes priority. We have documented situations where people who have been outstanding members of society, with multiple U.S. citizen children, and who have lived here for decades, still get deported.
WP: What other kinds of immigration policies or practices would you say fall into the category of human rights problems?
Ginatta: One area is violations in the workplace. Workers are incredibly vulnerable to exploitation because of their immigration status. People working in dangerous industries may be afraid to report serious workplace violations or women, such as farm workers, may be afraid to report sexual assaults, for fear they will be reported to immigration authorities and deported.
There is also the right to remedy. This is a key human rights principle. You should have the right to access law enforcement, and policies that create a fear or block between a person who witnesses a crime or is a victim of a crime and the police are human rights violations. We have documented many situations where people are afraid to contact the police because they fear a contact about a crime will become an inquiry into their immigration status.
WP: Do you see the deportation of illegal immigrants as a human rights abuse?
We are very worried about the growth of criminal prosecutions of illegal entrants into the U.S.. This is a federal crime and now people who are trying to come into the U.S. to be reunited with their families are facing federal prison time. These prosecutions have spiked to almost 100,000 a year. They are changing the population within federal prisons. Immigration is becoming the most prosecuted federal crime, and Latinos are becoming the number one ethnic group inside federal prisons because of this.
WP: How would you compare the treatment of illegal immigrants in the U.S. to other Western democracies??
Ginatta: We have documented problems in immigration systems throughout the world. Our main concern is not how the U.S. lines up against Australia or Europe, but how the U.S. lines up against its own obligations to the human rights treaties it has signed. The U.S. has signed the international convention on civil and political rights, and there is language in this treaty that puts a priority on protecting family unity as the fundamental unit in society that merits protection.
WP: Immigration reform today is a highly partisan and emotional issue in the U.S. Does your organization have any political agenda in connection with immigration reform?
Ginatta: We have been working on flaws in the U.S. immigration system for over ten years. We keep documenting the flaws but the laws don’t change, so we have bad laws with the added amount of time that no action has been taken. You’re right, people have preconceptions when they hear the phrase comprehensive immigration reform. But the way we are trying to talk about U.S. immigration system is by documenting personal stories and those of families who have been directly impacted by the flawed system.
WP: What is your official stand on the current debate and proposals for immigration reform?
Ginatta: We are a nonpartisan organization and we have seen positive proposals from both sides of the aisle. We supported many aspects of the Senate bill, and where we saw flaws we raised them. We do take the position that the time for immigration reform is now. We are pushing for these flawed laws to be changed and improved. But we don’t think human rights is a partisan issue.