November 12, 2009
SAN DIEGO – U.S., Mexican and international officials must recognize the deaths of migrants occurring during unauthorized crossings of the U.S.-Mexican border as an international humanitarian crisis and should address the ongoing violations of the right to life and identify protective measures, according to a letter sent to a commission of the Organization of American States (OAS) by the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial and Mexico's National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH).
The letter calls on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to request the permission of the U.S. and Mexican governments to make an onsite visit to the region, conduct an investigation on the crisis, issue a report for the General Assembly of the OAS, and identify measures that both countries should adopt to bring them in compliance with their international human rights obligations.
The ACLU and CNDH documented the humanitarian crisis in a 76-page white paper, Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border, which they presented to the Commission as documentation for their requests. The release of the report marked the 15th anniversary of the border enforcement policy, Operation Gatekeeper, which concentrated border agents and added walls and fencing along populated areas, intentionally forcing migrants to hostile environments and natural barriers that increase the incidence of injury and death. Since the program’s inception, an average of at least one migrant a day has died.
“More than 5,000 people have died crossing our border, and an estimated seven to eleven percent of them are children,” said Kevin Keenan, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “Equally alarming are the hundreds of family members who are left in inconsolable limbo, never knowing the fate of their loved one.” The issue of state obligations to families of the deceased has not been raised in the context of migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Family members are confronted with complex and often contradictory bureaucratic mazes to located relatives who they believe have gone missing or died while attempting to cross the border. There is currently no centralized database for locating a relative, no uniform standards for identifying remains, and one-quarter of those who perish while crossing are never identified, leaving their families in permanent anguish.
Ten years ago, the San Diego ACLU submitted a petition to the Commission (Victor Nicolas Sanchez et al.) alleging that U.S. border enforcement-deterrence strategies violated the right to life under Article 1 of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. While the petition was ultimately dismissed on procedural grounds, the Commission expressed concerns and agreed to monitor the situation.
“Since the Commission consented to monitor the border situation, we respectfully ask that they now act on their concerns,” said Jose Luis Soberanes, president of Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights. “When they initially expressed unease, only 300 migrants had died. Today, nearly twenty times that number have died—many of their deaths directly attributable to U.S. border enforcement policies.”
Both the United States and Mexico are bound by the American Declaration. The failure of the governments of both countries to adopt domestic policies or laws or negotiate bilateral agreements to deal with the crisis highlights their abandonment of their obligations under international law to respect and ensure the rights of migrant populations.
In the face of continuing human rights violations, the ACLU and the CNDH urge the Commission to:
- Request the permission of the U.S. and Mexican governments to make an onsite visit to the region
- Conduct an investigation
- Issue a report on the crisis for the General Assembly of the Organization of American States that addresses the ongoing violations of the right to life and the right of families to identify, recover, and bury their deceased family members in a dignified manner
- Identify protective and preventive measures that the United States and Mexico should adopt to bring their actions in line with applicable human rights obligations
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, headquartered in Washington D.C., is an autonomous arm of the OAS, and is one of two bodies created for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Americas. (The other is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, located in San Jose, Costa Rica.) It’s seven elected members act independently, without representing any particular country.
For more information and to download a copy of the report, click here for San Diego ACLU (English) and here for la Comision Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (Espanol).