The United States has failed to uphold its international obligations to protect the human rights of migrants, subjecting too many to prolonged detention in substandard facilities while depriving them of an adequate appeals process and labor protections, a United Nations investigator said Friday.
In the international body's first scrutiny of U.S. treatment of its 37.5 million noncitizen migrants, U.N. investigator Jorge Bustamante took particular aim at what he criticized as the "overuse" of detention for immigrants. Noting that the annual detainee population has tripled in nine years to 230,000, he called on the United States to eliminate mandatory detention for certain migrants and instead expand the use of alternatives, such as electronic ankle bracelets.
Bustamante, who visited Los Angeles last year during a three-week fact-finding mission, also urged that migrants be given the right to legal counsel, more impartial hearings and improved holding facilities, particularly for women and children.
"The United States lacks a clear, consistent, long-term strategy to improve respect for the human rights of migrants," said his report, which was presented Friday to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. Bustamante serves as the body's special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.
In a statement to the council, the U.S. delegation called the report disappointing.
The report "focuses only on a narrow slice of the migrant population in the United States and makes no effort to recognize notable, positive aspects of U.S. migration policy," the statement said. "This results in an incomplete and biased picture of the human rights of migrants."
The delegation said the United States had one of the world's most generous immigration policies and offered more than 11 million migrants green cards, citizenship, asylum, refugee resettlement and temporary protected status between 2000 and 2006. The United Nations estimates that global migrants number 200 million, with the United States by far the largest haven, with 35 million as of 2000.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Kelly Nantel also criticized Bustamante, saying he did not adequately consider the voluminous information provided him by U.S. officials documenting migrant protections in place here.
Those include the right to seek administrative review of detention and deportation decisions, along with access to federal courts to challenge removal orders.
Bustamante "has made a number of inaccurate or misleading claims and has drawn sweeping conclusions that appear to be based on anecdotal evidence from a small sample of individuals, for which he fails to provide appropriate evidence and reasoning," Nantel said.
At the U.S. government's invitation, Bustamante visited seven cities last year to interview dozens of migrants, community activists, immigration attorneys and senior government officials. He toured the U.S.-Mexican border and visited a federal detention center in Arizona, but he was denied access to other facilities in Texas and New Jersey.
In his two-day visit to Los Angeles in May, Bustamante said he was concerned about "rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States" and took testimony about worker abuse, government raids, family separations and other issues. In his report, he wrote that xenophobia and racism toward migrants had worsened since the Sept. 11 attacks, with a particularly devastating effect on children, Afro-Caribbean migrants, and those perceived to be Muslim or ethnic South Asians and Middle Easterners.
But the report said that two federal laws passed in 1996 accounted for the biggest changes toward a stricter approach in U.S. immigration policy. Among other things, the laws increased the number of people subject to mandatory, prolonged and indefinite detention, including those who commit an expanded list of crimes such as minor drug offenses, the report said. The laws also reduced avenues of appeal and limited judges' discretion to grant migrants the right to remain in the United States.
The growing reliance on detention tears families apart and costs U.S. taxpayers $1.2 billion a year, the report said. In contrast, alternatives such as electronic monitoring are far cheaper -- about 20% of the cost of detention, according to a 2006 congressional report.
Human rights activists hailed the report as an important and independent voice that brings public attention to problems faced by migrants.
"The U.S. touts the importance of human rights abroad, but rhetoric doesn't match the reality at home," said Chandra Bhatnagar of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "All we are asking is to bring human rights home."