This Is How We Can Defend Migrants Coming to the Border

Michelle Chen

Honduran migrants heading in a caravan to the US aboard a truck, receive food donations in Acacoyagua, Chiapas state, Mexico, on October 24, 2018. (Photo by Johan ORDONEZ / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump is stoking fear over a new migrant caravan from Central America, claiming to have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy [sic].” Amid this environment, we are re-posting a piece from 2009 about the need for comprehensive labor legislation to protect migrants and immigrants, who are some of the most exploited workers in the United States.

What if lawmakers had the guts to create comprehensive labor legislation for immigrants, enshrining their rights in accordance with international law? What if our legal system recognized immigrants’ freedom of movement, shielded families from unnecessary separation, and allowed real recourse against exploitative employers?

We should know better, of course, than to expect anything approaching that from Capitol Hill, where the hobbling immigration debate is dictated by business interests and xenophobia.

So, it’s a good thing such a law has already been drafted for them. Years ago, in response to the growing intersection between human rights and labor migration, the United Nations developed the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Recognizing that border-crossing is an economic right and necessity, the Convention’s provisions include freedom from discrimination in the workplace and public services, equal protection before the law, and protection from arbitrary expulsion,” violence and intimidation by groups or individuals.

Yet in another stunning display of American exceptionalism, the United States has not joined the dozens of other countries that have ratified these common-sense principles. Washington prefers to relegate immigration issues to the domestic policy arena, which allows it to capitalize freely on a two-tier labor force.

Chandra Bhatnagar of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program noted last December (in a rather lonely celebration of International Migrants Day) that there are three distinctly vulnerable subsets of migrants in America: Guestworkers, who have employment-based visas, are at risk of being chained to exploitative employers without legal recourse. And undocumented workers, following a controversial Supreme Court ruling in 2002, have lost safeguards in the areas of accessible remedies when injured or killed on the job, overtime pay, workers’ compensation” and other protections. Domestic and agricultural workers have been shut out of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and other labor laws, deprived of a minimum wage floor, workplace safety protections, and the right to unionize.

In a recent paper on the labor migration and international law, Villanova University law professor Beth Lyon writes that a major obstacle to ratification of the Convention examined the government’s reluctance to open its immigration policy to scrutiny under international law:

It appears that the Migrant Worker Convention has received virtually no domestic attention in the United States from either civil society, domestic or international government, likely because it is assumed that any attempt to define immigrants as rights holders is a political non-starter.

But Lyon argues that ratification of the Convention could help to break through the current domestic political stalemate and build-up of undocumented immigrants” and

advance agendas important to both the right and the left, including increased national security through enhanced standing with the global south and an improved humanitarian situation for one of America’s most vulnerable groups.

Many immigrants’ rights advocates are bypassing the government to leverage international law on their own. The ACLU, for instance, recently invoked United Nations policies in advocating for hundreds of Indian guest workers imported to as cheap forced labor in the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. The organization complemented its litigation in federal court with an appeal to the U.N. Spe­cial Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

U.S.-based activists have worked with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate detention facilities in Texas and Arizona, as well as law enforcement policies toward undocumented immigrants.

Last month, the Commission’s Rapporteurship on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families reported, many men, women and children detained in those facilities are held in unacceptable conditions.” The delegation also criticized reliance on local police in anti-immigrant crackdowns, warning that the federal government might be unable to hold local law enforcement properly accountable for enforcing immigration laws with respect for basic human rights.”

The Florida-based Coalition of Imokalee Workers has framed the plight of exploited migrant farmworkers as a modern-day international slave trade. Targeting food-industry behemoths like Taco Bell and McDonald’s, the group has combined grassroots labor organizing with massive public education campaigns to pressure employers to improve wages and working conditions.

Advocates for domestic workers in New York City link the struggles of home-based laborers, the vast majority of them immigrant women of color, to global economic dynamics and the country’s legacy of racial oppression. To offset the lack of federal protections, Domestic Workers United is pushing for stronger state-level regulations, like livable wage standards, protection from trafficking, and integration into New York’s human rights laws.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico discussed trade agreements and border enforcement at the summit in Guadalajara this week. As usual, officials focused on the movement of goods, not people.

Yet the engines of global capital are greased by the flow of labor across borders. A byproduct of economic integration” has been economic apartheid in immigrant communities. While the political establishment works to advance the rights of corporations to trade freely, the rights of migrants to basic human dignity are brushed off the agenda.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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