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Acting Locally, Acting Globally: Why We Need International Human Rights Monitors Here at Home

Laura Rotolo,
ACLU of Massachusetts
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July 23, 2009

When you think “human rights monitors” you probably think of teams of experts overseeing elections and investigating war crimes in far-off corners of the world. Well, we could use some of those monitors right here.

In fact, a team from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is doing just that this week as they visit immigration detention centers in Arizona and Texas. The IACHR is the human rights body of the Organization of American States, the regional organization of which the U.S. is a member.

You may have read our recent posts on the many issues of concern with our broken immigration detention system. If so, you know that every day around the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds over 30,000 immigrants in “civil detention” in any of over 400 local, state and private jails and denies many of them basic rights such as medical care and lawyers. In Massachusetts, about 800 immigrants fill our local county jails every day as they wait for a decision on their deportation.

This week, we sent a report to the IACHR monitors on an issue that affects Massachusetts residents who get caught in the web of immigration detention: they are often transferred to remote detention facilities as far away as Texas and New Mexico. Far away from their families, lawyers and communities, detained immigrants have few resources to fight their legal cases, and often give up and agree to be deported.

Our recent report on detention conditions revealed that detained immigrants are sometimes transferred in retaliation for speaking up about abuses or problematic conditions at these jails.

Immigration law is complicated, and courts have been so reluctant to limit the federal government’s power over immigration that it has been almost impossible to challenge this practice in court.

Yet the rights involved are so fundamental that they are recognized universally: the right to a lawyer; the right to medical care if you are sick and in detention; the right not to be abused by guards and to be able to complain about it if you are, without fearing retribution.

Human rights monitors in the United States can prompt us to ensure those rights — but they also remind us that we are not alone in the world. This is not just a Massachusetts problem or a U.S. problem. When we deny noncitizens in our custody basic rights, it doesn’t just violate our Constitution and our American sense of fairness. It also goes against everything we stand for internationally, and the way we would want Americans abroad to be treated in similar circumstances.

The Obama administration was open enough to invite the human rights monitors into our country — under IACHR rules, they cannot come in uninvited. We hope that the administration will also be open enough to hear the Commission’s report when it concludes its visit, and that it will make the necessary changes to ensure that immigrants don’t lose their human rights when they are in detention.

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