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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - United States

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 6 July 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - United States, 6 July 2011, available at: [accessed 9 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Compared to the rest of the US population, Native Americans during 2010 continued to experience higher rates of illness and mortality from diseases such as diabetes, pneumonia and tuberculosis. In the area of education, Native Americans were also far more likely to drop out of high school and far less likely to go to college. On the other hand, those who attend tribal colleges were much more likely to complete their degree programmes, with the vast majority undertaking careers that serve their indigenous nations and preserve language and culture. Activists argue that much of this is the result of a history of marginalization and territorial dispossession.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

On 16 December 2010, the US finally agreed to officially endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The change in stance comes three years after the UN adopted the measure, despite opposition from the US, as well as Australia, Canada and New Zealand (who all subsequently endorsed the declaration). Although some UN member states remain in abstention, by reversing its decision, the US has ensured that no country now remains opposed. Moreover, as a state with significant influence, it has now joined the international community in recognizing that indigenous peoples have rights to non-discrimination, self-determination, land, natural resources and culture. UNDRIP promotes their effective participation in all matters that concern them and ensures their right to remain distinct.

Though not legally binding, UNDRIP is recognized as having moral and political weight; consequently, for over a year, indigenous rights advocates in the US had been urging President Barack Obama to reassess the US stance on the declaration. Following a promise to comply, the US administration undertook a series of consultations with indigenous leaders and NGOs from April to October, which culminated in the official endorsement at the opening of the second annual White House Tribal Nations Conference. Along with the declaration, the president outlined other initiatives, such as providing funding for improved indigenous health care, community school construction, helping tribes combat violence and crime, and resolving long-standing disputes over discrimination and resource rights. Tribal leaders are hoping that the willingness to engage in dialogue shown by the Obama administration will help end the historical marginalization of Alaskan and Native American nations within the US, and help improve the relationship between their autonomous governments and councils, and that of the US.

The US endorsement of the UNDRIP was especially symbolic given that activists in the US Native American community were involved in the original proposal as well as the initial work of drafting it some 30 years ago. These activists, including Tim Coulter, now executive director of the Washington, DC-based Indian Law Resource Center, resorted to the international legal system in an effort to improve US national laws and practices, and gain a place for indigenous peoples in the international community. They are therefore hoping that UNDRIP can be used as a basis for ensuring that the US federal government fulfils its responsibilities to indigenous peoples, and carries out its obligation to promote and respect the human rights of Native American nations and tribes.

Violations of migrant rights in Arizona

On 13 April 2010, the State of Arizona passed the strongest anti-illegal immigrant bill in the US. The 'Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act', introduced as Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070), authorizes police to check the legal status of anyone they suspect of being an undocumented migrant, and to arrest all who lack proper identification.

According to US federal law, all foreign nationals over 14 years old who are in the country for longer than 30 days are required to register with the US government, and to have the related documents in their possession at all times. SB1070 makes it a crime for a foreign national to be without these documents or others that verify a legal presence in the US, and also prosecutes anyone sheltering, hiring and transporting illegal aliens. This especially targets undocumented migrant day-labourers by making it a crime to look for work on the street, and fines anyone who harbours or transports them including family members.

According to Associated Press, prior to the law Arizona had been hosting an estimated 460,000 mostly Hispanic undocumented migrants, partly as a result of being the main illegal border crossing point between Mexico and the US. Traversing the harsh Arizona Desert on foot is one method used by thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans seeking to enter the US illegally. By the 1990s, the largest number of arrests by the United States Border Patrol was occurring in Arizona. There was also concern that lethal drug-trafficking and human-smuggling related violence in Mexico would spill across the border into the state, particularly given that over the past five years, the state capital Phoenix had been averaging one kidnapping per day – the highest number of any city in the US.

However, what began as a local discussion over state control of undocumented migrants quickly became a heated national debate. The passage of the bill sparked protests, rallies and calls to Republican Governor Jan Brewer to veto the legislation. Fears were expressed that the Arizona bill would fuel the anger of people frustrated with the lack of progress on federal US immigration reform, and inspire other states to follow suit with similar controversial measures.

Critics charged that the law infringed a number of key human rights by subjecting minorities to police scrutiny, detentions and arrests based on their race or origin. It also violated freedom of speech by exposing speakers to scrutiny based on their language or accent; and eliminated the right to freedom of movement without being stopped, questioned or detained. Opponents also argued that the bill would subject police departments to civil rights lawsuits for engaging in racial profiling or for not enforcing the law. In a press statement, the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police warned that the legislation would increase community distrust of local police and deter immigrants from reporting crimes – including domestic violence – and from cooperating in other investigations.

Human rights groups travelled to Arizona to denounce the legislation, and tens of thousands of people demonstrated in over 70 US cities. State governments in California, Minnesota and Colorado banned employee visits, and passed resolutions limiting business transactions with Arizona-based companies. There were also protests from the Mexican Senate, and according to the Washington Post, Mexican President Felipe Calderón condemned the bill and called it a 'violation of human rights'.

According to a poll conducted by the Arizona State University, researchers found – not surprisingly – that 81 per cent of registered Latino voters in Arizona opposed SB 1070. Supporters such as the sponsor and co-author of the bill, State Senator Russell Pearce, argued that the absence of federal immigration enforcement had left the state little choice but to take its own measures. It should also be noted that, despite the vocal public protests, the Arizona law seemed to enjoy strong backing across most of the US.

The Act was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on 23 April 2010, and amended two days later to prevent it from being applied in a discriminatory fashion. However its constitutionality and compliance with civil rights law was immediately challenged in the courts by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Anti-Defamation League and the Mexican government. Moreover, on 6 July 2010, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of Arizona asking that the law be declared invalid, and requested the federal courts to issue an injunction to halt enforcement before it went into effect. A preliminary injunction was granted that blocked the law's most controversial provisions.

Nevertheless, supporters could argue that the law is already making a difference. A study released in November 2010 stated that there were already 100,000 fewer Hispanics in Arizona than before the debate about the law began. It also suggested that Arizona's poor economic climate could be a contributing factor in the decline. According to Associated Press, the government of Mexico reported that between June and September 2010 over 23,000 of its citizens had returned to the country from Arizona. Migrants who have remained in Arizona have modified their behaviour to avoid detection. According to local television station news reports, domestic violence shelters have noted that some women with questionable immigration status have been avoiding domestic abuse hotlines and shelters for fear of deportation.

In other parts of the country, bills similar to SB 1070 were introduced in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina. Politicians in nearly 20 states were proposing to introduce similar legislation during their 2011 legislative calendars. By the end of 2010, none of the bills had gone to final vote.

In the end, the ethnic make-up of a state may have a role to play in whatever decisions are taken regarding the issue of illegal immigration. For example, according to MSNBC News, states along the Mexican border – California, New Mexico and Texas – that have large and influential Hispanic communities and cultural ties to Mexico have shown little interest in following Arizona's lead, indicating that they do not see illegal immigration to be such a serious problem.

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