Human Rights / Immigrant Rights - Fact Sheet

What are Human Rights?

The United Nations was formed when the world was fearful of the imminent threat of nuclear war and had witnessed  widespread discrimination and genocide during the Nazi Holocaust in the early and mid 1940's. In response to the overwhelming human rights violations that occurred during WWII, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10th, 1948.

The United States was instrumental in creating the UDHR, which was largely modeled after the Bill of Rights. In fact, Eleanor Roosevelt was the chair of the Human Rights Commission.

Roosevelt described that commissions work as "put[ting] into words some inherent rights. . .standards towards which the nations must henceforth aim."[1]

Roosevelt did not expect all countries to implement human rights quickly, but to aspire to them. She remarked that these rights would not be new practices to Americans. With such a central role in creating the UDHR, it is surprising that the United States has failed to sign and ratify many U.N. covenants. Ratifying these covenants would create legally enforceable standards; a system for Americans to file human rights abuses to the state and provide international oversight; and demonstrate leadership to other countries.

There are nine core international human rights treaties.

The United States has ratified:

  • Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1966)-U.S. ratified in 1994.
  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)-Signed in 1977 and ratified by the Senate in 1992.[2]
  • Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment-Signed in 1988 and ratified in 1994.[3]

However, the United States has signed but not yet ratified:

  • International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966)-Only six countries have signed but not yet ratified.
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979)-Only seven counties have not ratified.
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)-Somalia and the U.S. are the only counties that have not ratified.

The United States has not signed:

  • Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and their Families.
  • Convention Against Enforced Disappearance.
  • Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities.

How are Human Rights related to the Rights of Immigrants in the U.S?

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled-whether they are immigrants or not.

The UDHR and two of its subsequent documents-the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights-establish the basic rights of all human beings, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status.

These rights are not conditioned on citizenship. The Constitution grants all people in the United States certain freedoms and protections under U.S. laws, regardless of whether one is a citizen or noncitizen, documented or undocumented.  

Need for the Human Rights Framework

International treaties recognize that non-citizens, in particular, face significant exposure to human rights abuses because they are often removed from their communities and support networks.  Immigrant women and children are even more vulnerable, often being denied access to health care and education, exposed to abuse of various kinds, and subjected to trafficking and arbitrary detention and deportation. Another particularly vulnerable immigrant population is refugees and asylees, who have been forced to flee their homelands.  Recognizing these various vulnerabilities, international human rights law stipulates that non-citizens must receive the same treatment as citizens in the areas of the right to life and security, equality in the justice system, freedom of religion and culture, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.

U.S. laws do not always uphold human rights. Certain state and federal laws discriminate between citizens and immigrants, or between documented and undocumented immigrants. Immigrants may experience

discrimination and intimidation in the workplace and in society at large. As one report concludes, "U.S. domestic law protects migrants against violence and intimidation, but in recent years, the extreme and often racist rhetoric surrounding immigration issues has increased the threats migrants face to their personal safety." [4]  For example, according to the FBI, hate crimes against Latinos increased 34% between 2003 and 2006[5]. In particular, migrant women are more susceptible to domestic violence and sexual assault than citizen women, since factors such as language barriers, social isolation, lack of financial resources, and fear of deportation prevent them from reporting the abuse to police.

Sometimes U.S. laws create arbitrary infringement on these individual's civil liberties and deny them their fundamental right to due process. The 14th Amendment guarantees that all people living in the United States, regardless of race, nationality, or citizenship status, have a right to due process and equal protection under the law. In reality, however, migrants are frequently stripped of these basic human rights, especially in the post-9/11 era.

Since September 11, 2001, over one thousand migrants were detained for minor immigration violations while also being questioned and investigated about terrorist activities. During these investigations, immigrants in our communities were detained in abusive conditions, denied access to attorneys, and detained for months without ever actually being charged with a crime. "Detaining migrants without probable cause until they are cleared by a criminal investigation denied them the presumption of innocence to which all persons are entitled under the U.S. justice system."[6]

How Can the U.S. Better Fulfill the Obligation to Protect the Rights of Immigrants?

"The UDHR recognizes that full realization of one's civil and political rights is contingent upon access to economic, social and cultural rights as well."[7] To ensure the human rights of immigrants, the United States has the following obligations[8]:

Respect: The U.S. government must not deprive any immigrant of their rights under domestic and international law and should not take measures that are incompatible with those rights.

Protect: The U.S. government must take measures to prevent individuals or third parties, such as employers or civil society organizations, from interfering in any way with realization of the human rights of immigrants.

Fulfill: The U.S. government must adopt necessary measures and create an enabling environment such that all immigrants can enjoy their full human rights.

Non-Discrimination: The U.S. government must work to prevent discriminatory outcomes due to class, race, gender, language, or other factors, in order to ensure equity in the fulfillment of the rights of immigrants.

Protect the Most Vulnerable: The U.S. Government must actively reach out to the most frequently marginalized and excluded communities, who face the greatest barriers in realizing their human rights as immigrants.


[1] Roosevelt, E. (1948)  "Promise of Human Rights" Foreign Affairs.

[2] U.S. has added reservations that would require implementing legislation to make the treaty enforceable in court and continues to permit the death penalty.

[3] The Bush administration refused to sign optional protocol that would have allowed a "system of regular visits to places of detention carried out by independent national and international bodies" suggested that detained individuals had enough legal avenues to make complaints.

[4] "The Rights of Migrants in the United States" The Advocates for Human Rights, August 2008.

[5] Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hate Crimes Statistics.

[6] See footnote 4.

[7] Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU's Human Rights Program.

[8] UN Population Fund. "FAQ on Human Rights."



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