The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Dr. Jorge Bustamante, is visiting the United States at the invitation of the U.S. government to review the conditions of migrants and immigrants. To learn more about his visit, go to www.aclu.org/humanrightsofmigrants.
The Special Rapporteur, Jorge Bustamante, began his U.S. visit in San Diego on Monday, April 30. Bustamante is 69 years old and unambiguously charming. He is most at ease when he is listening to others talk — their personal accounts filled the first day of the official visit.
The day started in the North County, above San Diego, where José Gonzalez from the Indigenous Front of Bi-national Organizations led Dr. Bustamante over a muddy road to view the remains of a migrant encampment in McGonigle Canyon. Hidden from view of the tract houses and deep within an undeveloped brush area, migrants have been living for years in order to be close to jobs in the tomato, pepper, and cabbage fields below. Others work as day laborers who wait for work on nearby street corners. The canyon provided some shelter, but minimal—the laborers were exposed to the elements, with little water or food and few clothes and blankets to keep them warm during San Diego’s desert-cold nights.
As Gonzalez explained to the Special Rapporteur, up until last February, about 300 migrants survived in this encampment despite poor living conditions and gastrointestinal diseases from the lack or drinking water. Residents of the nearby neighborhood knew about them and sometimes brought them clothing and food. A rough, but workable existence, and a peaceful coexistence, prevailed. But in February, a group of wrath-filled vigilantes decided to “clean it up” and destroyed the camps in an effort to scare the migrants out of the country. (The area of the encampment that had once served as an altar for worship services was destroyed and replaced by an American flag: A gloomy irony from those who purport to love what America is all about.)
One lawyer with the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), Dorothy Johnson, told us that seeing every single piece of property either slashed, torn or broken was disturbing because of the hatred with which it was done. “A jacket cut in two, a sleeping bag slashed from head to toe, blankets cut into pieces, a plastic bag full of pencils with each one of them broken in half, shoes carefully cut right through the middle…” According to CRLA, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and others, this North County vigilante group, which is affiliated with the San Diego Minutemen, is the most aggressive in the country in their harassment and intimidation of farm workers and day laborers who congregate in street corners.
The Special Rapporteur’s (or “SR,” as he is known by us by this time) visit to one of these corners confirmed that day laborers suffer from constant harassment and humiliation at the hands of anti-immigrant hate groups. Several day laborers in Rancho Peñasquitos talked about the profanity and insults hurled at them with the clear intent to provoke the young men to fight. They described working for hours or even days, and then being told that they weren’t going to be paid (and told: “what are you going to do about it?”). They described the constant scramble to find ways to sleep, eat, and live on the run. A 22-year-old day laborer from Oaxaca said in bewilderment: “What I don’t understand is why they hold such hatred of us simply for wanting to work.”
But they also told some uplifting stories of neighbors who have taken to heart their Bible’s admonition to welcome the strangers in our midst — they leave desperately needed food and supplies at a busy corner. The SR also heard from a laborer who was so incensed when, after working like a dog for days on end to help construct a home, the contractor said he wasn’t going to pay him, the laborer strode to the local police station, where an officer accompanied him to the construction site and demanded that the worker be paid for his labors. A bright spot to an otherwise gray morning.
After a meeting with a number of immigrants’ rights advocates, the SR shared a boxed lunch with a number of clergy leaders who work with immigrant communities. The SR was then joined by his top assistant and Human Rights Officer, Sepideh Mohadjer.
Representatives of Catholic, Congregational, and Episcopal churches, San Diego Meeting (Quaker), and the Jewish faith shared sandwiches as they retold the stories of abuses they’ve witnessed. They’ve seen people held for years, with no end in sight, in facilities far inferior to the jails that hold criminals, for possible immigration violations. They gave accounts of children traumatized when ICE agents raided their homes and removed parents. They spoke of members of their congregations who have become so fearful to move about in public that they no longer attend religious services. It was a harrowing litany of civil liberties abuses, and while there was a palpable sense of frustration in the room, there was also a great deal of hope (these are people of faith, after all) that a report by a United Nations human rights expert might help convince our government to halt these inhumane policies.
The SR closed his San Diego portion of the visit by listening to testimony from people whose homes were raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) just a few weeks ago. The American Friends Service Committee invited a 15-year-old who was arrested by ICE recently and detained until his family paid a $10,000 bond to get him out until his immigration hearing. “My family will be in debt for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Members of the Mountainview Committee for Human Rights have been living in fear since the ICE raids. “Children come running to hide in my store, and when I ask them what’s wrong they say ‘the police is outside and I don’t have papers'” recounted a local merchant and mother of three. “What laws protect the children?” she asked the SR.