In the first broad international scrutiny of U.S. treatment of migrants, a United Nations human rights expert took testimony about worker abuse, government raids, family separations and other issues as he wrapped up a two-day visit to Los Angeles on Thursday.
Jorge A. Bustamante, U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, met with day laborers, restaurant workers, farm labor advocates, gang-intervention specialists and others in San Diego and Los Angeles this week at the start of a seven-city fact-finding mission undertaken at the invitation of the U.S. government. His trip will include visits to the U.S.-Mexico border and federal detention facilities, along with meetings with senior government officials, immigration attorneys, community advocates and migrants themselves.
"There is concern in the United Nations human rights community about rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States," said Bustamante, who will present his report to the world body in the next year.
Evidence of problems, he said, was the Los Angeles police response to May Day marchers in MacArthur Park this week. As an official U.N. observer, Bustamante said, he declined to participate in the marches but spoke to some who witnessed the melee.
"The way the local police physically abused marchers represents right there a violation of human rights," he said. The FBI announced Thursday that it would investigate police officers' actions caught on tape.
Richard A. Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said the United States had "nothing to hide and is comfortable showing the world our practices."
But, he added, "I certainly hope this trip doesn't take Mr. Bustamante away from very critical work needed to be done in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Belarus and Burma."
Bustamante, a University of Notre Dame sociology professor who splits his time between his native Mexico and the United States, said that anti-immigrant sentiment is rising around the world as unprecedented levels of global migration have prompted a growing number of nations to adopt restrictive laws.
The United Nations estimates that global migrants number 200 million, nearly half of them workers and 40% of them undocumented. Those numbers have doubled since 1970, with the United States by far the largest haven with 35 million migrants as of 2000.
Bustamante said the United States has historically been a leader in promoting the human rights of migrants, even those without legal status, through its laws and international treaties. U.S. laws, for instance, extend even iIlegal migrants basic rights, such as access to public education, emergency healthcare and other benefits.
But Bustamante said he was concerned that the U.S. was not in actual compliance with some of its laws. That concern was a recurring theme during two days of Los Angeles meetings with immigrant advocates and others.
Jeffrey Ponting, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance program, said the state had the strongest farm labor protection laws in the nation. But he said that enforcement has not kept up, as the number of labor inspectors has decreased by two dozen in the last two decades to about 425, even as the workforce has grown by 30%, including more than a million farm workers.
As a result, he said, California's overwhelmingly immigrant farm workers routinely suffer from unscrupulous contractors who fail to pay them or provide toilets, water, rest breaks or protection from pesticides.
Other migrants testified about abusive working conditions, including one Nepal-born restaurant worker who said he labored as many as 15 hours a day without overtime pay or sufficient breaks.
"Unfortunately, laws without enforcement mean nothing," Ponting said.
At the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, immigration attorney Peter A. Schey told Bustamante that new migrant protections passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2000 still have not been implemented because of bureaucratic delays. Those protections would offer visas for migrant crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement in the investigation.
But, Schey said, not one of 10,000 visas annually allotted have been granted because federal authorities still have not issued regulations for them.
On Thursday, the National Immigration Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union described what it called "widespread violations" of the federal government's own detention center standards. As the number of migrant detainees in federal custody has tripled to 27,000 in the last decade, the non-binding standards were adopted in 2000 to ensure such basic rights for detainees as medical treatment and access to attorneys, telephones and law libraries.