SEATTLE, Washington - Fifty years ago in the southern United States, a system called "Jim Crow" denied African-Americans their civil rights. Now, some immigrant advocates are using the term "Juan Crow" for nativist ideologies that deny human rights to undocumented immigrants, most of whom are from Latin America.
Like the civil rights movement, the immigrants' rights movement asserts that all immigrants have certain inalienable rights regardless of which way the winds of public opinion blow.
Across the political divide, some opponents of immigration fear that their country is being overrun by alien cultures. The anti-immigrant backlash has been especially strong in some areas along the Mexican border and in the southeast, where in some states the number of new immigrants has quadrupled in a decade.
The failure twice in the past two years of immigration reforms in the U.S. Congress has left a legal and political vacuum in which controversies around immigrant rights have come to a boil. In response, the George W. Bush administration has unleashed raids on many immigrant workplaces and localities, coupled with more aggressive enforcement along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Some states and cities have passed their own laws criminalising undocumented immigrants and those who assist, hire and do business with them. Currently, crossing the border without permission or overstaying a visa is a civil, not criminal, violation under U.S. laws. In Arizona, an anti-immigrant group has proposed an initiative that would deny citizenship to babies of undocumented immigrants born in the U.S.
In immigrant communities and along the border, these crackdowns have sown fear and confusion. Immigrant advocates say some enforcement measures violate the human and civil liberties of not just illegal immigrants, but also legal immigrants and citizens who happen to have the "wrong" accent or skin tone.
According to Flavia JimÃƒ©nez of the non-governmental National Council of La Raza (NCLR), "The rights of immigrants have dramatically decreased over the past two years. We've seen policies introduced at the federal, state and local level with the goal of essentially doing away with the undocumented population. But when implemented, they have significant impacts on the immigrant community generally, not just the undocumented."
JimÃƒ©nez cited increases in racial profiling and a recent FBI report that hate crimes against Latinos have risen. Mounting deaths along the Mexican border due to increased enforcement are "a huge human rights violation that is not being taken care of," she told IPS.
A report released in October by the NCLR found that for every two immigrants apprehended by immigration enforcement, one child was left behind. Two-thirds of these children are U.S. citizens or legal residents, the study said.
When people cross the border into the U.S., many human, civil and economic rights go with them under international and U.S. law regardless of immigration status.
Human rights conventions associated with the United Nations, the International Labour Organisation and the Organisation of American States (OAS) guarantee basic human rights to all people, citizens or not. These rights apply to them in the workplace as well as on the street and at home, anywhere in member countries.
But when these rights are not respected and international law is disdained, remedies to protect the newcomers can be elusive. The relationship between international agreements and U.S. law is a frequent point of contention.
Steven Camarota of the Centre for Immigration Studies, which favors restricting immigration, told IPS: "In general I think illegals must always be dealt with in a humane way when they are apprehended and deported. As for the U.N. or other international agencies, I would say I can't think of any role for them to help. Who we allow into our country is a domestic matter."
In contrast, Jennifer Gordon, professor of Law at Fordham University, proposed two basic arguments for recognising the human rights of undocumented workers: "One is about human dignity: if you give up your labour, you're benefiting the country that you're in, so you deserve to be treated with respect and paid fairly."
"But there's also an instrumental argument," she told IPS. "We must protect these most vulnerable workers if any worker in the United States is to have any protection. If you deny undocumented immigrants the protection of laws such as the minimum wage and health and safety standards, you increase the incentive for employers to hire them, thus lowering the floor for all workers."
Treatment of immigrants in the U.S. has attracted the attention of international organisations. Earlier this year, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Jorge A. Bustamante, visited several U.S. cities to take testimony on violations of immigrants' human rights.
Bustamante found problems including arbitrary detention in substandard conditions, separation of families, lack of centralised information on detained migrants, and inadequate legal representation for deportees. He also noted concerns about racial and ethnic discrimination and violations of children's and women's rights.
In 2003, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), part of the OAS, issued an advisory opinion that labour laws that discriminate against undocumented workers violate international law. Mexico initiated the case in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision denying compensation for lost wages to an undocumented worker illegally fired for union organising.
Currently, another case against the U.S. is pending in the IACHR for violations of the human rights of immigrants.
"The U.S. views itself as a beacon of human rights in the world," said Rebecca Smith of the National Employment Law Project, counsel on the current case. "We must live up to that view, and the treatment of migrant workers is a bellwether for whether our actions are as good as our talk. As the largest migrant-receiving nation in the world, what message do we send to our international partners if we tolerate the worst kinds of abuses of our most vulnerable workers?"
In Mexico, too, citizens and public officials have criticised human rights abuses against immigrants in the U.S. According to the television network UnivisiÃƒÂ³n, Mexican activist Elvira Arellano told a meeting of Mexican legislators and migrants' associations: "Every day they are arresting, criminalising, deporting and separating families, and our government remains silent."
After taking refuge in a Chicago church for more than a year, UnivisiÃƒÂ³n reported, Arellano was deported from the U.S. to Mexico in August with her son SaÃƒÂºl, who is a U.S. citizen.
© 2007 Inter Press Service