The Unfulfilled Promise of International Migrants Day

JURIST Guest Columnist Azadeh Shahshahani of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia addresses injustices faced by migrant workers even as a holiday is celebrated in support of them...
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Today marks International Migrants Day, a day to be commemorated and celebrated by all in support of immigrants and their contributions to our communities. December 18th marks the date in 1990 that the UN adopted the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The Migrant Workers Convention guarantees migrant workers and their families fundamental rights including equality before the law regardless of a migrant's legal status.

The promise of dignified treatment remains far from being fulfilled for many immigrants in the US, however.

Eduardo Zuniga's case is illustrative. Zuniga, a migrant worker, was detained at the Stewart Detention Center, the largest immigration detention center in the US located in Lumpkin, Georgia. While working at Stewart's kitchen, Zuniga crushed his toe and shattered his toenail. He was not allowed to see a doctor and was referred instead to nurse practitioners who refused to remove the shards of his nail from his toe. They gave him only over-the-counter pain medication, antibiotics and instructions to apply ice to his toe. Six and a half months later, his nail had not grown back and his toe remained infected, causing him continuous pain. He was injured a second time while working when he twisted his leg, causing swelling from his ankle to his knee. Nurse practitioners at Stewart did not allow him to see a doctor for over three months while pain and swelling persisted. During this time, they denied him the necessary medication, permission slips allowing him not to work and authorization to use physical assistance items such as a wheelchair or a second crutch. Deported to Mexico, Zuniga continues to suffer pain in his knees.

This was far from an isolated case as documented by the ACLU of Georgia in our report [PDF], "Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia." Published in May 2012, the report is based on interviews with 68 detained immigrants and their families as well as immigration attorneys, tours of the detention centers and review of documents obtained from the government. The report covers the four immigration detention facilities in Georgia, including Stewart.

The conditions documented by the ACLU of Georgia violate the constitutional and human rights of detained immigrants, many of who are migrant workers, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) own standards. Findings raised serious concerns about violations of due process rights, inadequate living conditions, inadequate medical and mental health care and abuse of power by those in charge.

One of the problems documented was the inadequacy of medical care at the facilities as shown by the treatment afforded to Zuniga. Detention facilities—including Stewart—have gone years without employing a full-time doctor. Preventative care is not available, pre-existing medical needs are often ignored and emergency care is grossly inadequate.

The report recommends that ICE stop detaining immigrants at the for-profit Stewart and Irwin County Detention Centers given the extent of the documented violations and their remote locations, which isolate detained immigrants from their families and communities of support.

To date, neither ICE nor the for-profit detention centers have taken action to address the concerns highlighted in the report.

As such, the ACLU of Georgia recently submitted letters to the Inter-American Commission Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants [PDF] and the Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty [PDF] requesting a meeting to discuss immigration detention conditions in Georgia.

In what could be a promising sign, the Corrections Corporation of America recently announced the closing of one of its facilities in Georgia, the North Georgia Detention Center. Unfortunately, the immigrants detained there will not be released; instead, they will reportedly be shipped to Stewart and Irwin.

Instead of shuffling immigrants between detention facilities, ICE should make greater use of effective and far cheaper alternatives to detention. Congress should also eliminate the detention bed quota that forces ICE to hold 34,000 immigrants in detention daily regardless of actual need, and repeal mandatory detention provisions in immigration law that preclude individualized assessments of the need to detain. When migrant workers are released from unnecessary detention and reunited with their families, we will be one step closer to truly celebrating the promise of International Migrants Day.

Azadeh Shahshahani is the Director of the National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project at the ACLU of Georgia. She serves as the President of the National Lawyers Guild, as well as on the Steering Committee of Georgia Detention Watch.

Suggested citation: Azadeh Shahshahani, The Unfulfilled Promise of International Migrants Day, JURIST - Hotline, Dec. 18, 2013, http://jurist.org/hotline/2013/12/azadeh-shahshahani-immigrants-day.php.


This article was prepared for publication by Michael Muha, an associate editor with JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at professionalcommentary@jurist.org

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