Migrant Workers Await U.S. Response: Human Rights Still in Jeopardy

On July 23, The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty joined Maryland Legal Aid Bureau (MD Legal Aid) and migrant farmworker advocates in calling for the U.S. Department of State to respond to a United Nations (U.N.) communication regarding a MD Legal Aid complaint about human rights violations occurring in migrant labor camps.  On December 27, 2012, the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, and on the Human Rights of Migrants issued a letter to the U.S. government.  The Special Rapporteurs’ letter detailed migrant agricultural farmworkers’ lack of access to legal, labor, healthcare, anti-trafficking, religious, and social services, with emphasis on farmworkers who live in temporary employer-owned housing or migrant labor camps. The U.S. government has yet to respond or actively address this issue, leaving migrant workers with limited or no access to their civil and human rights.

Migrant farmworkers are among the poorest laborers in the United States and are therefore among the most vulnerable – like individuals experiencing homelessness – to human rights violations. Farmworkers are often undocumented migrants with low levels of education and limited proficiency in English. Additionally, many migrant farmworkers live in rural areas and are dependent on their employers for transportation and access to public services and resources. When employers are unwilling to assist, farmworkers must rely on outreach and advocacy efforts. Advocates, however, are frequently prevented by employers and law enforcement officials from providing the necessary legal assistance to farmworkers. In fact, outreach workers are often harassed, accused of trespassing, and threatened with arrest or sometimes even violence.

The U.N. Special Rapporteurs highlighted the legal limitations these individuals face and have questioned the U.S. government’s role in protecting migrant farmworkers’ human rights and human dignity. Under international human rights law, specifically the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the United States has a legal obligation to ensure that all individuals are able to access legal protections without discrimination.

The federal government provides few comprehensive legal protections for all migrant farmworkers. Indeed, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the principle federal employment law which encompasses adequate housing, transportation and wage protections, does not apply to migrant farm workers working for “small” agricultural employers. Thus, a significant number of farmworkers are defenseless when violations of their rights occur.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty joins MD Legal Aid and its coalition partners in urging the U.S. government to respond to the U.N. Special Rapporteurs’ communication and effectively resolve this concerning issue. Without federal intervention, migrant farmworkers will continue to experience human rights violations at the hands of their employers.

Original version of this post can be found at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website blog.


Organizing Federal Action to Combat Criminalization of Homelessness

On July 17, I participated in an open dialogue about the criminalization of homelessness in the United States among representatives from key federal agencies and advocates from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP).

Prompted by the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Committee’s concern about imposing criminal penalties on people living on the streets in the U.S., the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) hosted delegates from the Departments of State, Justice, Housing & Urban Development, Health & Human Services, and Veterans Affairs, as well as NLCHP to discuss the urgent need for effective solutions. While the focus of the meeting was about domestic policy, the fact that it took place within this context of a human rights review was unprecedented, and the participants arrived ready to address criminalization of homelessness as a potential violation of both the U.S. constitution and our international treaty obligations.

Although participants recognized that criminalization laws and ordinances are implemented on state and local levels, the conversation demonstrated a collective interest in federal agencies using their power to incentivize constructive alternatives to criminalization.

With this in mind, participants shared their respective agencies’ efforts to reduce criminalization. The Department of Justice (DOJ) discussed its creation of consent decrees that have expanded supportive and permanent housing in the context of the Olmstead Supreme Court case. Although Olmstead focused on preventing unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities, many people experiencing homeless are also living with disabilities, and these settlements help create housing options for them outside an institutional context. All participants expressed interest in exploring and expanding the line of cases addressing benefits for people experiencing homelessness.

NLCHP’s Maria Foscarinis highlighted the growing trend of states passing Homeless Bills of Rights to ensure that communities do not violate homeless individuals’ rights. Participants also noted the importance of the federal government systemically supporting these protections and working with human rights commissions on a local level to educate individuals on their civil and human rights.

Concrete commitments by federal agencies to engage with state and local governments to end criminalization of homelessness were critically absent from the discussion. However, the USICH tasked all representatives to review and respond to the day’s discussion and NLCHP’s policy recommendations at the next USICH inter-agency meeting in September.

NLCHP will submit its official shadow report to the Human Rights Committee later this summer, and will be able to share any actions the agencies take in its presentation to the Committee during the review in October.

The meeting concluded with Barbara Poppe, Executive Director of the USICH, sharing a story recently referred to her about a homeless man in Los Angeles’ Skid Row spending 60 days in jail after being unable to pay jaywalking ticket, a stark demonstration of the violation of human rights that criminalization presents, and strong motivation for all the agencies to do what they can to stop this stain on America’s reputation as a human rights leader.

Original version of this post can be found on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website blog.

Investigating Health Facilities in Rural India and Visiting the Supreme Court

It has been a busy couple of weeks travelling on a fact-finding trip in Maharashtra, listening to oral arguments at the Supreme Court of India, attending a World Population Day conference and seeing more of Delhi.

Fact finding in Maharashtra was fascinating. It exceeded my hopes of what lawyering could be. Not only have I learned so much about the reproductive health laws in India, but I actually have the opportunity to go out into the rural villages and investigate how those laws are being implemented.  Myself, a former intern, a lawyer and, at times, a caravan of local social activists visited 18 different health facilities in 4 days. We interviewed delivery and sterilization patients in tiny remote health centers and huge city hospitals. At some, I was impressed with how much can be accomplished with so few resources. At others, the conditions were deplorable and left me with nightmares.

As we drove from town to town, we were shown so much hospitality.  Local activists were excited to show us their hometowns and people we met along the way invited us into their homes for tea and meals. I crawled through underground tunnels in Hindu temples, hiked to the ruins of a fort in tiger habitat, ate fruit I’ve never seen before that was knocked out of a tree by a team of boys and skillfully aimed rocks, and watched villagers catch fish from what looked like an uninhabited puddle by throwing buckets and buckets of water into a hand-held net.

After feeling a little bit stranded when our trip was extended two extra days because all the trains were over booked, and our 17.5 hour train ride home turned into a 21 hour ride, it felt good to return to my home away from home in Delhi.  Back in the office, I have been working hard to write a report of everything we saw on our trip and draft a petition that will be filed in the High Court of Maharashtra.  We will file a case asking the court to order the State to adequately implement the government policies for pregnant women and improve the conditions of its health facilities.

After the two hours it took to get inside, visiting the Supreme Court of India was very exciting.  Piling (literally) 11 lawyers, interns and activists into one car to drive there was hilarious. Waiting in a nonexistent line in a hot, humid crammed room for over an hour to get a pass to enter was not as enjoyable. But eventually I was able to listen to arguments challenging the Juvenile Justice Act of India before the Chief Justice. One lawyer focused heavily on international law and brought up several US cases I studied over the past year for my social justice project working with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. It was a great experience. I am hoping to go back again before I leave to listen to arguments in a case about sex selective abortions which contribute to the very unbalanced ratio of males and females in India.

I also attended a very informative World Population Day conference this week, where the founder of HRLN spoke along with population and health experts, an outnumbered government official and journalists.

Now it is 10:30pm and I must get to bed so that I can leave at 4am tomorrow morning for a weekend getaway to Agra and Jaipur!

Why J-Lo Singing in Turkmenistan Matters

berdy and jlo

(Reprinted with permission from IntLawGrrls blog. You may find the original post here.)

It is no secret that the majority of Americans cannot find Turkmenistan on a map. But after the media blew up the story that Jennifer Lopez put on a birthday concert for Turkmenistan’s president this week, people finally took some notice.

Fortunately, it seems most people talking about the pop star’s show for President Berdimuhamedow are indignant because she was paid to sing for a dictator with an abysmal human rights record, essentially condoning a government with excessive isolationist and repressive policies.

Freedom House ranked Turkmenistan last in its 2013 Global Press Freedom Rankings, sharing the designation with North Korea. Freedom House also included Turkmenistan among the “worst of the worst” with respect to political rights and civil liberties. The International Commission on Religious Freedom named Turkmenistan as a “country of particular concern” for its “egregious religious freedom violations.” Turkmenistan used to have an exit visa regime, violating the right to emigrate. Although exit visas were officially abolished in 2002, there remains in practice an extensive black list that effectively operates to bar certain individuals from leaving Turkmenistan.

I am working with an organization that supports the educational aspirations of Turkmen students. Last year, students and their parents were harassed for trying to take free English classes we offered. Our teachers and staff were threatened. Four years ago, students trying to leave Turkmenistan to attend college on scholarships we provided were forcibly removed from their flights and prevented from leaving the country for nearly a year. One student was “escorted” off six different flights as she desperately tried to get back to school.

Needless to say, J-Lo’s birthday show was a slap in the face for those of us who have been struggling to support Turkmen students and their dreams for a better life. We know that education is the answer to making change in Turkmenistan. When we see U.S. celebrities taking money from governments who rule by repression and fear, it’s like the American dream has died a little.

There is a way forward here. Jennifer Lopez could make the right decision and donate her alleged $1.5 million performance fee back to organizations working for positive change in Turkmenistan. True, she has apologized, and the publicity relating to this concert has raised good awareness about the problems in Turkmenistan. But for J-Lo to really make amends for supporting a government that would never have given “Jenny from the Block” a chance, she needs to put actions behind her words.

Photo credit.