Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Study Of U.S. Migrant Rights Brings Official To Georgia

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 24, 2007

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Jorge A. Bustamante, visited Atlanta on May 9-11 as part of a U.S. tour to discuss migrant rights-related issues with U.S. officials, experts, advocates and migrants, including Catholic Charities of Atlanta, Inc. Georgia was chosen because it has the nation’s fastest-growing population of undocumented immigrants, conference officials reported.

The purpose of Bustamante’s mission, organized at the invitation of the U.S. government, was to gather information on the situation of migrants at the borders, in immigration detention facilities and in community settings. His stop in Atlanta was part of a tour that includes San Diego, Tucson, Austin, Fort Myers, Washington and New York. His agenda included visits to detention centers and the borders of Arizona and California.

Several organizations participated in the Atlanta meeting, which explored issues such as detention, deportation, health care, human trafficking, housing, undocumented and guest workers, and education. Bustamante will prepare a factual report that will be made available to the U.S. government for approval after which it will be presented to the U.N. General Assembly and will be posted on the Internet as a free publication.

Bustamante is a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame and is recognized as an expert for his work on migrant human rights issues. He has been active in this area for over 20 years. He works independently from the U.N. as a special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. The mandate was established in 1999 and further extended by the Human Rights Council to “examine ways and means to overcome the obstacles existing to the full and effective protection of the human rights of migrants, including obstacles and difficulties for the return of migrants who are undocumented or in an irregular situation.”

“It is very heartening to have a representative from the United Nations invite the conversation about the rights of migrants in Georgia and across the country,” said ACLU of Georgia executive director Debbie Seagraves in a press release. “Too often, we are led to believe that the protections in the U.S. Constitution apply only to American citizens, and we forget that the world has expectations for human rights in the United States.”

This tour was planned by the U.S. Human Rights Network Coordinating Center, along with the ACLU, Latin American and Caribbean Community Center, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and other organizations around the country.

Susan Stevenot Sullivan, director of parish and social justice ministries for Catholic Charities, spoke on the “overwhelming demand” for Catholic Charities services ranging from emergency aid to legal counsel through their Immigration Services. She described the undocumented immigrant raids in Stillmore, Ga., beginning Labor Day weekend of 2006, where about 100 people, mainly breadwinners, were picked up at traffic stops and through entry into residences.

“Terrified people stayed in the woods for days—in the hot, humid, bug-filled Georgia summer—with their children. People did not go to work, and children did not go to school. The school district asked the Catholic leadership to please tell people to send their children to school, where they would be safe and cared for. Many people had no information on the whereabouts of their detained loved ones for weeks.”

She visited Stillmore about three months after the raids, where “fear was still in the air” and about 500 people, mostly women and children, still required basic necessities including food.

“I was taken to a trailer home where I was told that immigration enforcement people simply kicked the door in, without identifying themselves or presenting a warrant…”

Fostering this climate of fear, she said, is a climate of hatred that was evident at the U.S. House Field Hearings in Gainesville and Dalton that she attended in August 2006 “providing a forum for mostly negative, and at times virulent, rhetoric about undocumented immigrants,” she said to the U.N. Rapporteur.

She noted that this climate in Georgia hurts not only Hispanics but other immigrants as well, and “the fear and frustration can prevent or slow access to services, to which people are entitled, and encourages exploitation.”

She described how undocumented immigrants are exploited in that Catholic Charities gets weekly reports of “people working for a day or days, or weeks, without being paid, or people being given bad checks.” And they get reports that many police make traffic stops by color in many of Georgia’s counties. Furthermore, there are at least 40 active hate groups in Georgia, mostly in North Georgia.

Father Alfonso Gutierrez of Our Divine Savior Church in Tifton also spoke on the vulnerable conditions of immigrant workers and the anti-immigrant sentiment in his region.

In the morning session, Adelina Nicholls, executive director of GLAHR, reported that an estimated 650,000 Latino immigrants live in the state of Georgia and that as many as 70 percent of those are undocumented. Immigrant Daniel Castellano gave testimony on how he and many others have come over on H2B work visas to perform low-skill jobs but are misled in that instead of having a steady job as expected, the contractors recruiting people literally rent them out on a commission basis. He believes this is a trend with H2A agricultural workers, JI visas for exchange students or training and H2B for seasonal, hospitality and temporary workers.

Alisha Johnson, a paralegal from the Mississippi Immigrant Alliance, highlighted specific violations of human rights such as racism perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, hate groups targeting immigrants, excessive state sanctions and denying in-state tuition to undocumented students who have been in the school system for years.

Saket Soni, lead organizer from New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, testified to flagrant abuses to immigrant and African-American workers helping to rebuild New Orleans, including police officers and contractors picking up immigrants, taking them home to do work on their own homes and then dropping them back without paying anything. Gerry Weber of the ACLU of Georgia expressed concerns including the restrictions on housing in Cherokee County with increased penalties to contractors who rent or lease to the undocumented.

Maria Ray of Dialogo Latino stated that schools are only providing materials in English in Dekalb County schools. A Cobb County high school parent reported that school materials to parents there are only in English, also noting one school case where there is evidence of discrimination against a Mexican teenager, where people assumed he was in a gang because he wore a bandanna.

Eric Meder, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, reported that 5 percent of the U.S. work force is undocumented and shared how immigrants’ sending money to their home countries supports economic growth in those developing countries.

Sullivan regrets that only one English language media outlet covered the event, which reflected the need for reasonable and humane laws for immigration reform, now being debated in Congress.

A video was screened that reported that the Stewart Detention Center, opened in Lumpkin in September 2006, already has about 1,200 detainees largely picked up in immigration raids and that the majority have had no access to legal counsel. Detainees are entitled to legal counsel but it’s not provided by the government. Last year alone Atlanta Catholic Charities Immigration Services provided counsel to some 1,400 detainees. Program director Sue Colussy explained that when “due process” is violated, detainees are removed without having the opportunity to talk to a lawyer and gain understanding, and may have been pressured to accept removal. But “in our visits at Stewart, and talks with the Guatemalan Counsel, most of those who took removal had no options, but it would be good to be sure everyone knows their rights before they sign anything.”

Sullivan spoke to Bustamante, who told her that nothing in the disturbing testimony was different from what he had heard in other U.S. locations. He raised questions about the church’s position on the interfaith “sanctuary” movement to give shelter to the undocumented. While that movement is a short-term advocacy effort, Sullivan explained how the church is focusing on the larger issue to educate the public on its immigration reform campaign, its network of over 150 legal clinics and its history of advocating for immigrants. The hope now is that bipartisan immigration reform legislation proposed May 17 in the Senate, which provides a pathway for status legalization for undocumented immigrants who have been here before Jan. 1, 2007, can be modified and then passed. The compromise proposal is now being debated, and the church’s position is to move forward with the legislative process while calling for bill modifications in the provisions for the temporary worker program, the legalization program and the family preference categories.


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