The Day the United States was a No-Show at a Human Rights Hearing

Shelbi Smith, Class of 2018
as featured in The Huffington Post
May 1, 2017

On March 21, I traveled with a fellow student and faculty of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago to Washington D.C. to attend the hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hear the Trump Administration defend the human rights implications of the then-recent Executive Orders on migrants and immigration. As it turned out, the defense would be quick – in fact, there wouldn’t be one at all.

That morning, however, the other student, my professor and I entered the hearing room in anticipation of exciting and important debates. The day’s schedule listing was heavily focused on the U.S.:

8:30AM: Case 12:545 – Isamu Carlos Shibayama and Others, United States (Merits).

10:15AM: Impact of Executive Orders “Border Security and Immigration Enforcements Improvements;” “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist entry into the United States;” “Expediting Environmental Reviews an Approval for High Priority Infrastructure Projects” on Human Rights in the United States (Ex-officio).

11:30AM: Policies that Prevents Access to Asylum in the United States.

As we sat down, however, we quickly joined others in the room in staring with disbelief at the striking row of empty chairs directly across from the panel of lawyers and advocates who had worked tirelessly to prepare their arguments in defense of immigrants and asylum seekers. The United States – for the first time in the history of the Inter-American Commission – had simply failed to attend any of the three hearings in which its actions were at issue.

As I sat throughout the morning listening to advocates and stared at the U.S. representatives’ empty chairs, I thought about the videos I had seen of jeering crowds of anti-immigrant protestors in Murrieta, California, chanting, “Go home!” and “We don’t want you!” in the summer of 2014. The protestors succeeded in turning back DHS buses transporting undocumented women and children from Central America from overcrowded facilities along the Texas-Mexico border. I remembered the deep sense of shame I had felt as I watched the protestors waive American flags. That day at the Commission, I felt far greater shame knowing that the same hate I had seen in Murrieta was now literally written into Executive Orders issued by the President of the United States. A president who hadn’t seen fit to show up to defend his actions to his neighboring countries.

Jamil Dakwar, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, said it best following his testimony at the hearing—this was a new low.

Does it Really Matter if the U.S. Fails to Attend Human Rights Hearings?

You may be thinking this really shouldn’t matter. You might even be asking yourself whether this is really a surprise given the current political climate. After all, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, did not even attend the NATO summit in April (the last time a Secretary of State skipped a NATO foreign ministerial meeting was in 2003). However, it should be surprising; it should be concerning; it should be worrisome. The Organization of American States (OAS) was created by the States of the Americas, including the United States, to protect regional peace and solidarity. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is the principal organ of the OAS that protects human rights in the Americas and the only regional human rights mechanism with jurisdiction over the U.S.

Such behavior by the U.S. State Department must not be normalized when the human rights of vulnerable people in this country are at stake. We must not tolerate our government simply opting out of international meetings, disregarding its treaty obligations and diminishing the importance of international organizations established to maintain peace, human rights and global cooperation. As a member of the OAS, the United States should have been present to hear the Commission’s concerns, explain its actions and potentially work with the Commission to ensure its policies respect the human rights of those impacted.

Instead, before the row of empty chairs, advocates listed their concerns about the consequences of the expansion of the geographic scope of expedited removal; the increase in discretion available to immigration officers without review; the granting of authority to local and state police to enforce federal immigration laws; and the hiring of additional ICE and CBP agents. The list of concerns was vast. The potential for human rights abuses was immense.

Where do we go from here? 

Most media attention since January has been on the so-called Muslim Ban. However, President Trump has issued multiple Executive Orders that pose a tremendous threat to the lives and the well-being of immigrants and asylum seekers, particularly those from Central and South America. We must remain as vigilant of the rights of those seeking refuge at our southern border as we are to those being targeted by Trump’s discriminatory Muslim ban.

It is exactly for this reason that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights exists. Like other international and regional human rights mechanisms, the Commission is meant to hold member States accountable for compliance with human rights treaties and declarations.

It is only a matter of time until the Commission issues its statement following the hearing. In all likelihood, the Commission will condemn the aspects of the Orders that have violated the rights of undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens alike. Advocates have and will continue to demand the U.S. abide by its commitments and respect the human rights of anyone within its borders.

In the meantime, the truth is that it is up to all of us to fight these Orders at the federal, state and local level.

Educate yourself by reading the Executive Orders, make phone calls to your Senators and Representatives, contact local and national NGOs, like the National Immigrant Justice Center, and ask how you can help. Most importantly, strive every day to educate yourself and others and to combat the ignorance and hate that has brought us to these dire circumstances in the first place.

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