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Deepening Our Engagement with Human Rights at Home

Undergraduate student researcher Cristina Gamundi, reviews U.S. Department of Justice documents obtained via public records requests. Photo: Corinne Thrash (Columns)
Undergraduate student researcher Cristina Gamundi, reviews U.S. Department of Justice documents obtained via public records requests. (Photo: Corinne Thrash for Columns)

November 8, 2018

Last year, in response to requests for partnership from local immigrant rights organizations, our research team began examining the human rights implications of contemporary immigration enforcement in Washington state. This work continues to grow, in both depth and urgency: at a time of heightened concern about immigration, it is more important than ever to understand the policies our government has implemented, at the local, state, and federal level to handle immigration, and to examine the effects of these policies on the lives and liberties of all Washingtonians.

We began this work by building on skills we developed in our longstanding research on crimes against humanity committed in 1980s El Salvador. Despite the gulf in space and time between these two research areas, we found that grassroots organizations in both contexts asked similar questions: Where are our people being taken, and why? Which specific agencies are behind the patterns of government conduct we’re seeing on the streets? And how can policy address the human rights concerns raised by such practices?

Since 2017, the UWCHR has filed hundreds of requests for public information useful to understanding the human rights consequences of federal immigration enforcement in our state. Under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), we’ve sought records from federal agencies involved in immigration enforcement (predominantly Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection); under Washington state’s Public Records Act, we’ve requested records from dozens of state and local government agencies. While we’ve obtained valuable information, unfortunately, in many cases both ICE and CBP have responded to these requests in ways that thwart, rather than advance, understanding of how our government works. We’re deepening our commitment to finding out, and sharing, the truth of what our government is doing to enforce its borders.

Our research has also uncovered many ways that contemporary immigration enforcement raises concerns about due process—the idea that the government cannot arbitrarily deprive people of their lives, liberty, or property without ensuring a fair judicial process. Our ongoing work examines various practices that may skirt or subvert the core fairness protections inscribed in the U.S. Constitution and international human rights law.

For example, we are interested in understanding how, within the immigration system, individuals can be deported and families separated without recourse to the courts. Within one hundred miles of the border—a zone that includes most of Washington state—in many cases immigration authorities can subject a person to various forms of express deportation, without a chance to see a judge, to meet with a lawyer, or to appeal the decision. We are still seeking data on the extent of these summary removals in our state. Other researchers have found that many of these deportations happen within 24 hours—and sometimes they occur because an ICE agent’s suspicion that a person’s tattoo or appearance suggests he has engaged in criminal activity, rather than because a court has found him to be guilty of any crime.

Relatedly, there is broad reason to be concerned that ICE and CBP may be engaging in racial profiling in Washington state—and that local and state government agencies, in their efforts to collaborate with federal law enforcement, are aiding in this discrimination. Recently, working with the ACLU, our researchers obtained information about an incident in which the Auburn Police Department detained a driver simply because of his racial identity, assuming he was of interest to immigration authorities. He was later deported. Such practices are troubling because in our state, local police departments have no legal authority to enforce immigration law—yet our own research has shown that some local law enforcement agencies rely on policy manuals that encourage the use of race or language as a basis for detaining an individual on “reasonable suspicion” that s/he entered the country illegally.

From a human rights point of view, states are entitled to use immigration laws to regulate entry of foreigners; our concern, therefore, is not with the fact that federal immigration law limits entry for some people under some circumstances. However, the U.S. Constitution and international human rights agreements require that all laws be written and implemented in a manner that respects the core rights of all people; real or imagined security concerns should not override core liberties. While our research is still ongoing, we have uncovered troubling indications that in the context of the contemporary immigration crackdown, such principles are not always being upheld in our state. We look forward to deepening our engagement with these issues in the years to come. For project updates visit the Human Rights at Home project.