Action Alert

International Migrants Day 25th Anniversary: Recognizing Migrants’ Human Rights

International Migrants Day 25th Anniversary: Recognizing Migrants’ Human Rights
United Methodist Women members at an immigrant rights rally in St. Louis during Assembly 2010.

In the last two decades, more people are picking up and moving across national borders than before the turn of the century. As the number one destination country, the United States has a large stake in the trends of migration.

Worldwide, about 232 million people migrated to new homes in 2013; for the United States, the migrant population grew to 41.3 million, making this population the largest it has been in 93 years. With one in six people residing in the United States not born here, this year’s International Migrants Day is all the more relevant, for U.S. citizens and other U.S. residents.

On December 18, we remember that throughout human history, people have used the advances in transportation to discover new continents and new shores. Countries like the United States were built by these same people, all searching for better lives and a new beginning. However, this day is not just to remember the part that migration has played in shaping the world today, but also to oversee the part that migration will play in the world of tomorrow and the challenges that migrants face.

International Migrants Day is a day for the international community to recognize the labor rights and human rights of migrants, as well as national and international accountability to guarantee those rights. Both during the migration and when they have settled in their new home, migrants face marginalization, fewer rights and prejudices. At risk for violence and human trafficking, migrants have long been the victims of human rights violations. Women and girls, who make up about half of all international migrants, are especially likely to experience gender-based violence and exploitation in all sectors and at all stages of their migration journey, according to the United Nations. Migrant children are vulnerable to exploitation too, especially those who are unaccompanied.

This year, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of International Migrants Day. On this anniversary, the push for more countries to recognize and uphold migrants’ human rights is as important as ever. International law affirms these rights, no matter migrants’ status, under the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

This comprehensive treaty underscores the need for all nations to respect migrants’ fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as address issues such as poverty, conflicts and wars and human rights violations that force people to migrate out of necessity rather than choice.

Many of the top destination countries, however, have not ratified this treaty recognizing the rights of migrants — including the United States. As of March, only 48 countries have ratified the treaty.

United Methodist Women has joined efforts to ratify this convention in the United States. However, anti-migrant backlash and legislation has taken the United States back a step in terms of upholding migrants’ human rights, rather than a step forward.

Immigration Policy in the United States

Today’s immigration policy has been shaped mainly by the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished national origin quotas long used to limit or promote the immigration of people from certain countries over others. Instead, the law created a preference system that chose immigrants based on family reunification and skill levels. Many of the United States’ responses to unauthorized immigration have been for stronger security measures. A 1986 immigration reform law increased border patrol by 50 percent and imposed sanction on employers who knowingly employ unauthorized immigrants. While the focus was on employers, the impact has been mostly in strengthening a two-tier labor system, where more unauthorized migrant workers are forced to work without labor rights.  

Today, the United States limits the annual number of permanent immigrants to 675,000. The United States has about 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants, half of which were born in Mexico. The number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico has been on the decline, with increases in the number from Central America and Asia. Overall, however, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has largely been stable for the past four years. The same reasons that drive authorized immigration also drive people to migrate without authorization: fairer opportunity for employment, poverty, conflict or human rights violations. This is especially true when asylum systems are overburdened, and migrants must enter without a country’s permission to flee the conditions of their country of origin. Such a situation exists now on a large scale, as Syrians flee to Europe to escape the violent conflict in their country. For the United States, the influx of Central American children in the past few years has also been the result of violence and lack of opportunity in the countries these migrants are fleeing, linking back to U.S. policy in Central America in the 1980s.

Central American Refugees

Central American children, mostly unaccompanied, gained the attention of the nation when the number of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border increased by 90 percent between 2013 and 2014. In 2014, about 140,000 children from mostly Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — fleeing increased gang and drug violence as well as poverty — have crossed the border that we know of.

Most are fleeing increased violence; Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, while El Salvador has the fourth and Guatemala the fifth highest. Gang violence in particular has taken the lives of more and more minors. In El Salvador, the murders of minors under 17 years old increased by more than 77 percent in one year.

The number of children crossing the U.S. border has decreased from last year due to increased deportation efforts in Mexico, which some have criticized as treating the issue as an immigration problem instead of a refugee crisis.

Many children who were caught at the border last year are still waiting for the immigration courts to decide their fates. Despite being given priority, these cases could last longer than two years, during which they have little access to services past public education, according to the Migration Policy Institute’s October report. Though many of these children fled their countries either out of fear of harm or to escape poverty, most will not be granted asylum. About 97 percent of the cases that were resolved without deporting the individual, the Migration Policy Institute report found, did not grant legal status or asylum.

As a result of increased migration from Central America, children and families in the United States do face the possibility of family detention.

Family detention began in 2005, when hundreds of families — mostly women and children — were incarcerated in dormitory housing for migrating to the United States without authorization. This practice was mostly abolished in 2009, when the government decided to return to the practice of releasing families while they awaited trial. However, a new family detention center was opened up in reaction to the increased number of children and families from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Its purpose has been to speed up the deportation process, according to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

In the United States’ newest family detention center, mothers and children sleep eight to a room, The New York Times reported, and there are many cases of malnutrition among the children, who have little exercise within the facility. Health issues among the detainees such as pneumonia, scabies and lice have been reported by visitors to the detention center, which is little more than metal trailers surrounded by barbed wire, according to the reports.

“I saw children who were malnourished and were not adapting,” attorney Lisa Johnson-Firth reported to The New York Times Magazine after visiting the center. “One 7-year-old just lay in his mother’s arms while she bottle-fed him.”

Denied Refugee Status

A refugee is a person seeking the protection of another country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for being a member of a certain social group or having a certain political opinion, according to the 1951 Refugee Convention. It’s under this convention that refugees have the right to apply for asylum and legally stay in the country they applied to, as they should not be sent back to the countries where they were in danger, according to international law.

Migrants, on the other hand, are not giving the same protections. Countries may deport anyone who does not fall under the legal definition of a refugee without breaking any international law. As of now, migrants fleeing poverty or the results of climate change are not considered refugees and can be sent back.

As of September 30, the United States will accept a maximum of 85,000 refugees this fiscal year, and 100,000 refugees in the next. However, the United States only accepts referrals made outside of the country. Those who migrate to the United States beforehand are not considered refugees and will have to apply for asylum, which is decided case by case. Consequently, Central American children currently in the United States cannot be accepted through the refugee system. However, the nation has allocated 3,250 admissions for minors still in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as people within Cuba.

The United States will also admit 10,000 Syrians this fiscal year and has doubled the number of African refugees it has admitted in the last four years, but the majority seeking asylum from these regions are focusing on Europe.

The Refugee Crisis in Europe

The United States is not the only major receiving country to decide not to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The majority of European countries have also not joined the 48 countries that have ratified and agreed to uphold migrants’ human and labor rights. As a result, many refugees are being denied entry.

Syrians are being joined by asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and other conflict-affected countries in what the United Nations has called the biggest displacement due to war, conflict and persecution the organization has recorded.

The Syrian Refugee Crisis:
•    About half of all Syrians (10.6 million people) have been displaced from their homes.
•    4.1 million Syrians have registered as refugees with the United Nations and are living outside the country.
•    Three in four of these registered refugees are women and children.
•    366,000-475,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe this year.
•    More than 2,800 people have died or disappeared when attempting the trip.

Several EU countries have been hesitant to offer the thousands of refugees a place of refuge. Even Germany, which plans to accept 500,000 refugees annually and has received 98,700 asylum requests thus far, recently reinstated border control as countries switch from an emergency response to a return to their immigration policies. The same reasons are being given as the European Union debates over quotas: economics, national security and national laws.

The United Nations has reached out to different EU members to remind them of the rights migrants have to seek asylum, as Belgium, Luxembourg, Brussels and much of Eastern Europe have not committed yet to receive asylum seekers.

According to the United Nations — and The United Methodist Church — the moral issue is clear: people deserve the right to resist poverty and war through migration, as they have done throughout human existence. Whether they are fleeing war and abuse in the Middle East and Africa or gang violence in Central America, people have the right to move and seek asylum no matter their label of refugee or migrant.

What the former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the European Union in 2004 now applies to the refugee situation both the U.S. and Europe find themselves in:

“The public has been fed images of a flood of unwelcome entrants, and of threats to their societies and identities. In the process, immigrants have sometimes been stigmatized, vilified, even de-humanized. In the process, an essential truth has been lost. The vast majority of migrants are industrious, courageous, and determined. They don't want a free ride. They want a fair opportunity. They are not criminals or terrorists. They are law-abiding. They don't want to live apart. They want to integrate, while retaining their identity.”

Posted or updated: 12/18/2015 12:00:00 AM

Suggested Pages:

*Action Alerts

*Global Migration and Immigration Rights

Take Action

1) Join United Methodist Women’s Campaign to End Family Detention.

2) Create a United Methodist Women  Immigration Team in your conference

3) Meet your Congressional representatives in your district or contact them through the Congressional switchboard (202-224-3121). Urge them to support the following bills:

  • International Violence Against Women Act of 2015 (H.R.1340 & S.713) would create a U.S. global strategy to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls.
  • Immigrant Detainee Legal Rights Act (H.R. 3343) would provide programs to educate immigrant detainees regarding administrative procedures and their legal rights under U.S. immigration law, as well to give them access to legal information.
  • Accountability in Immigration Detention Act of 2015 (H.R. 2314) would charge Homeland Security with the task to ensure human treatment, including medical care and legal access, in U.S. detention centers.  
  • Protecting Immigrants from Legal Exploitation Act of 2015 (H.R.1123) would hold people accountable for the practice of law or immigration practitioner fraud, in which immigrants are used to obtain money or anything else of value by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations or promises.


Join the United Methodist Women’s Action Network.
Contact the Washington Office of Public Policy at:
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