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Advocates Speak of Workers' and Detainees' Rights

Niloufer Siddiqui,
Human Rights Program
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May 14, 2007

The excitement and energy was palpable as people streamed into Cooper Union to attend a public hearing on the rights of migrants. Organized by numerous regional nongovernmental and grassroots organizations on the occasion of the visit of Dr. Bustamante, the hearing intended to provide a space and forum for advocates and affected community members to provide testimonies on issues ranging from detention and deportation, to workplace rights, to anti-immigrant ordinances and post-9/11 human rights violations.

If there was just one thing that the Special Rapporteur and other members of the audience took away from the public hearing, it is likely to have been a recognition of the diversity of issues, experiences and people that fall under the vague and nebulous, though oft-used, term “immigrants.” The first (of four) panels at the hearing focused on the rights of migrant workers, and featured moving testimonies from a South Asian construction worker, a Latina street vendor, a Jamaican taxi driver, a South Asian domestic worker and a Liberian restaurant worker, among others. They demonstrated the wide array of invisible human rights violations that are suffered on a daily basis by many thousands of migrant workers in the state, and around the country.

Beneath the diversity, however, lay a simple and uncomplicated similarity: as Mr. J, a Pakistani construction worker, stated plainly, “We came here for a better life.” Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in the United States leave their home countries for greater opportunities here only to find themselves working long hours for little pay (sometimes none at all), and often abused and exploited without legal remedies.

Xenophobia and racism towards migrants in the U.S. has only worsened since 9/11. As we learned at the hearing from advocates at the New York State Defenders Association Immigrant Defense Project, Families for Freedom, Human Rights First and affected community members, the detention of asylum-seekers, long-term permanent residents, parents of U.S. citizens, and others in deplorable conditions demonstrates a complete lack of due process. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security arrested over 1.6 million individuals (including both undocumented and legal permanent residents). Of these, 230,000 were held in detention (pdf).

Mr. Jean Pierre Kamwa, a formerly detained asylum seeker, recounted his experiences fleeing imprisonment in Cameroon only to find himself living like a prisoner in a detention facility in the United States, the supposed standard in human rights protection. Mr. Kamwa’s case is sadly not uncommon. Under U.S. law, asylum seekers are subject to mandatory detention upon their arrival in the U.S, and as a result (pdf), are detained in immigration jails in the United States in prison-like conditions for months, and sometimes years.

Creating awareness of these issues is at least half the struggle, and I hope that Dr. Bustamante’s visit, and his subsequent report, will do just that.

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