Our Voices

‘Our duty as human rights advocates is to make them understand’

  • By
  • Melynda Shamie

It was an opportunity to tell the true story of discrimination against Black immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers by the U.S government, a story that largely goes untold, and reframe it for the international community.

The week of Aug. 9, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Vice President for Domestic Advocacy and Litigation Anthony Enriquez and staff attorney Sarah Decker, along with partners The Haitian Bridge Alliance (HBA) and Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), attended the periodic review of the United States by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), in Geneva, Switzerland. The International Convention on the Elmination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination is one of the few international human rights treaties that the U.S. has ratified.

It’s the first time RFKHR has participated in the CERD review, which occurs on a periodic basis for countries signed on to the UN treaty. It’s also the first time since 2014 the United States has participated in a review, which looks at compliance with the treaty; the Trump administration didn’t participate.

“It was an opportunity to put the U.S. government on the stand,” Enriquez said. “(CERD) really depends on advocates, like us, coming to them to share the real story of enduring racial discrimination in the U.S. That’s why we were there, supporting Black and Indigenous people in sharing their lived experiences.”

RFKHR, HBA, BAJI and others had submitted a report to CERD before the review, part of which detailed the abuse of Black Haitian migrants by the federal government and Texas police in Del Rio, Texas, on the U.S. border with Mexico, in September 2021. More than 12,000 Haitian migrants were there seeking asylum after deteriorating political and social conditions in Haiti that eventually led the U.S. government to extend Temporary Protected Status to Haitian nationals already present in the U.S.

Those who newly arrived at Del Rio, however, were subjected to brutal force, violent efforts to push them back across the Rio Grande, and eventual mass deportation by flight to Haiti under an emergency authorized, no-bid contract with a private prison company at a 1900% markup. The government’s actions at Del Rio were in stark contrast to the welcome extended to white Ukrainian asylum seekers just six months later.

“Attorneys from RFK Human Rights were on the ground providing emergency support at Del Rio,” Enriquez said. “We saw the injustices they suffered.”

It’s what allowed RFKHR and their fellow NGO partners to tell the stories of Black immigrants’ experiences and why they happen.

Black people bear the brunt of cruelties and abuse in our immigration system, including the highest denial rates for asylum and the highest rates of infliction of solitary confinement in immigration detention. But it’s a problem that’s underreported because the U.S. government doesn’t keep reliable statistics on the racial impact of its immigration policies. Instead it tracks denial rates, deportations, and more by country, not by race.

The committee forcefully pointed this out to the U.S. government’s delegation: That there should be a system in place to keep statistics on race when it comes to immigration. The U.S. representatives admitted that there isn’t a plan in place for it, and the government is in the dark about its policies inflicting harm, Enriquez said.

“How do you eliminate racial discrimination if you don’t even understand the scope of it?” he added.

But the U.S. government also sent up a red flag when discussing enforcement practices under 287(g) agreements, which deputize state and local police to perform immigration enforcement duties. They proudly called the program a “great success.” Enriquez was quick to point out, however, how easily the program encourages racial discimination: For years, Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio used it to justify egregious racial profiling until public outcry finally forced the U.S. government to pull out of its agreement with Arpaio.

RFKHR and its NGO partners were also able to meet with the U.S. delegation at the U.S. Embassy in Geneva, Enriquez said. Many U.S. delegates shared their own experiences with racism in compelling ways, explaining why it was personally important to them to work toward everyone’s common goal: eliminating the living legacy of racial discrimination in U.S. law and governance.

While representation is important, he added, it is not enough.

“We appreciated the opportunity to form the relationships we built there. But officials in D.C. don’t see the terror in people’s eyes at the border or in detention centers,” Enriquez said. “Our duty as human rights advocates is to make them understand that their decisions have real-life consequences.”

Overall, though, the outcome was hopeful, he said. CERD will release a report of recommendations and policy changes the U.S. can undertake to fight racism. And there is still more work to do.

“The United States has a robust grassroots advocacy network focused on immigration,” he said. “When the CERD report comes out, it’s our job to build support at home for the changes it recommends.”

Of course, that change isn’t going to happen overnight. This one trip to Switzerland won’t end racism in the United States.

“We started a conversation,” Enriquez said. “Wel stand on the shoulders of the great civil rights leaders before us who brought us closer to the world we want to see. Now it’s our turn to push. It’s not something lawyers alone can do — we have to do it together.”

It takes lawyers, teachers, laborers, whole communities — it takes all of us.

“It’s something we need to take seriously and enforce in our daily lives. That’s the nature of this struggle. It’ll happen little by little,” Enriquez said. “Human rights isn’t just a goal, it’s a process. Each generation builds on the last.”