Investigation of the Department of Homeland Security: How Did America and the International Law Community Reach this Point?
By Sneha Sharma
Sneha is a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Politics, Philosophy, & Economics and minoring in Healthcare Management and Engineering Entrepreneurship.
Recently, four congresswomen; Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Ilhan Omar (MN-05) sent a letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. This letter called for the organization to launch independent investigations into the reported human rights abuses committed by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), its components, and its private contractors. Many significant groups such as the SPLC and the Human Rights Watch also co-signed the letter. In the current socio-political climate, some argue that it is an expected but nonetheless rare occasion to witness sitting US congressional representatives release such a strong statement against their own government.
The US has always been known as a legally governed society and the leader of the current international system of states. It has raised its voice in international forums in support of freedom, justice, equality, and human rights when it believed that other leaders were misusing their power to suppress these values. Furthermore, the US was one of the original signatories of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights which codified the promotion of these values worldwide . Yet, time and time again the US has taken umbrage to international criticism of its actions that violate international treaties or sovereignties of other nations. Over the last few years, the current administration has embraced policies that violate internationally recognized human rights of refugees, minorities, immigrants, and children who lack access to the necessary resources to defend their rights in court or via other political processes. The American Civil Liberties Union and some "sanctuary" cities have taken steps to protect these vulnerable populations, but the scope and breadth of the harsh steps taken by law enforcement has prompted some critics to suggest that the US has lost its moral compass. The words penned by Emma Lazarus inscribed at the Statue of Liberty,"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore" ring hollow now.
In 2018, the US pulled out of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), calling it a "cesspool of political bias.”In response, the UNHCR Chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein implored the US to take a larger role and not create a void by stepping away given the current dismal state of human rights . The UN Charter gives the United Nations Security Council the authority to investigate, mediate, or dispatch a mission, but it is difficult to determine how that can be practically effective . The ACLU’s Human Rights Program (HRP) division works towards ensuring that the United States government follows international human rights laws and standards, as well as the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The US government has used tools of intimidation, harassment, and criminal investigations against individuals who have tried to defend the human rights of these refugees at the southern border. For example, in July of last year, federal prosecutors attempted to try Dr. Scott Warren, a geography lecturer and volunteer, with two counts of human smuggling and several other misdemeanor charges because he tried to provide humanitarian aid such as food, water, clean clothing and bedding in the desert town of Ajo, Arizona. Warren could have faced up to 10 years in prison .
In the current polarized political environment, every legal scholar should be asking themselves: how did the US constitution and legal framework fail to stop the exploitative actions of government agencies, and why international laws proved to be ineffective in curbing them? What brought about the situation that forced US lawmakers to implore HRC to investigate the harassment, exploitation meted out by the US to refugees? What are potential solutions that can strengthen existing US laws while ensuring that global leaders are kept in check from committing crimes against the weak and the vulnerable? What kind of advocacy from civil rights organizations can help to improve conditions and legal protections for immigrant detainees ? These are all questions that must be answered urgently from the highest levels of the US government, or else its reputation and citizens will both suffer even more.
 Office of Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. (2020, October 23). Pressley, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar Lead Call for International Investigation Into Alleged DHS Human Rights Abuses. US Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley: Serving the 7th District of Massachusetts. Retrieved November 3, 2020, from https://pressley.house.gov/media/press-releases/pressley-tlaib-ocasio-cortez-omar-lead-call-international-investigation-alleged
 United Nations. (2020). History of the Document. United Nations: Peace, dignity, and equality on a healthy planet. https://www.un.org/en/sections/universal-declaration/history-document/index.html
 BBC News. (2018, June 20). US quits 'biased' UN human rights council. BBC. Retrieved November 3, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/44537372
 United Nations. (n.d.). Protect Human Rights. United Nations: Peace, dignity, and equality on a healthy planet. https://www.un.org/en/sections/what-we-do/protect-human-rights/
 Amnesty International. (2019). UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 2019. Amnesty International. Retrieved November 3, 2020, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/americas/united-states-of-america/report-united-states-of-america/
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