A United States-based global rights group, Human Rights Watch, has taken on the President Donald Trump administration, claiming that in 2019, Washington continued to move backwards on rights.
According to the group, the Trump administration rolled out inhumane immigration policies and promoted false narratives that perpetuate racism and discrimination; did not do nearly enough to address mass incarceration; undermined the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people; further weakened the ability of Americans to obtain adequate health care; and deregulated industries that put people’s health and safety at risk.
‘’In its foreign policy, the Trump administration made little use of its diminishing leverage to promote human rights abroad; continued to undermine multilateral institutions; and flouted international human rights and humanitarian law as it partnered with abusive governments—though it did sanction some individuals and governments for committing human rights abuses’’, the group said.
It said the US continues to have the highest reported criminal incarceration rate in the world, with 2.2 million people in jails and prisons and another 4.5 million on probation and parole as of 2017 the latest year for which Bureau of Justice Statistics figures were available at time of writing.
The figures show a slight decrease in the number of people incarcerated from 2016 to 2017 and a 10 percent decrease from a decade earlier.
This decrease can be partly attributed to greater recognition among policy makers and the public of unfairness in the US criminal legal system and the harm caused, which has spurned many state-level reforms. Still, in several states incarceration rose, as did the incarceration rate for women, which grew by 750 percent from 1980 to 2017.
On the federal level, following enactment of the First Step Act at the end of 2018, more than 3,000 people were released from prison in July, earlier than they would have been without the legislation.
Though hailed as a major bipartisan criminal reform initiative, the law left many concerns unaddressed and affected only a small number of those held in the federal criminal system, which itself accounts for only about 10 percent of the total number of people incarcerated in the United States.
Stark racial disparities still exist in the prison population. While the overall imprisonment rate was down, among black women it was nearly twice as high as among white women and the imprisonment rate for black men was almost six times the rate for white men. For younger black men, the disparity was even larger.
The death penalty is allowed in 29 states. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 20 people in seven states had been executed in 2019 by the middle of November— all in the south and mid-west of the country. There were eight executions in Texas; three in Alabama and Georgia; two in Florida and Tennessee; and one each in Missouri and South Dakota.
The Trump administration announced a resumption of federal executions in July after 16 years without them, but a federal court blocked the resumption in November. In California, which has over 730 prisoners on death row, the governor imposed a moratorium on executions, and in New Hampshire, the legislature repealed its death penalty statute.
Poor people accused of crimes continue to be jailed because courts require money bail as a condition of release, forcing people not convicted of any crime to stay behind bars for long periods of time awaiting trial and resulting in coerced guilty pleas. A movement to eliminate money bail is growing but many states are replacing it with risk assessment tools that could entrench discrimination while failing to lower pretrial rates of incarceration.
New York enacted pretrial reform measures in April that are expected to dramatically reduce the number of people who can be detained pretrial using money bail and improve due process for the remainder. The measures, which take effect in January 2020, do not mandate the use of risk assessment tools.
Laws banning individuals with criminal convictions from voting continue to exist throughout the US. In 2018 voters in Florida approved a measure restoring the right to vote to 1.4 million residents with felony convictions, but in July the state enacted a law requiring those affected to pay all financial obligations, including excessive fines and fees, before this right is restored.
Racial Justice and Policing
Stark inequalities in wealth exist throughout the United States, and poverty intersects with crime, which is used to justify more aggressive policing in poor, often minority, communities. Rather than address problems of poverty—including homelessness, mental health, and gang involvement—with services, support, and economic development, many US jurisdictions simply add more police and effectively “criminalize” poor communities, a vicious circle that fuels high rates of incarceration.
Government tracking of police violence continues to be incomplete. According to the Washington Post, police reportedly shot and killed 783 people in the US in 2019 as of mid-November, a reduction from the previous year. Of those killed whose race is known, 20 percent were black even though blacks make up 13 percent of the population. Racial disparities in police use of force, arrests, citations, and traffic stops continue to exist.
Human Rights Watch documented substantial racial disparities in policing in a case study of the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Black residents consistently reported experiences of abusive policing.
Recognition grew in 2019 that current racial disparities in policing, criminal justice, and other aspects of American life cannot be understood without reference to slavery and its continuing impact on society. Congress held an historic hearing on Juneteenth, a day honoring the abolition of slavery in the US, to discuss possible ways to account for these harms, including reparations and more investment in black communities to address continued inequality and discrimination.
Rights of Non-Citizens
The US government in 2019 continued to disregard its obligations to asylum seekers under international law, leaving many refugees without effective protection. In January, the administration began returning asylum seekers to Mexico while their claims are pending under the Migrant Protection Protocols, known as the “Remain in Mexico” program.
At time of writing, over 55,000 asylum seekers had been returned to often dangerous and unlivable conditions in Mexico, with significant barriers to obtaining legal representation and a fair hearing. This included asylum seekers with disabilities or other chronic health conditions despite initial guidance that no one with “known physical/mental health issues” would be placed in the program. In the city of Ciudad Juárez, Human Rights Watch documented the cases of six such individuals, four of them children.
In July, the administration announced an interim rule to bar asylum eligibility for individuals who travel through a third country and attempt to enter the US without having applied for protection in that country. This would essentially bar all but Mexicans from applying for asylum at the US southern border.
The US continued to limit the number of asylum seekers accepted at southern ports of entry, leading some to risk their lives attempting to cross illegally.
In July, the administration also announced a new rule making people anywhere in the country who cannot prove at least two-years’ presence in the US subject to fast-track deportations, which have returned asylum seekers and refugees to harm.
Migrant children coming to the US-Mexico border were held in inhumane conditions in jail-like Border Patrol facilities without contact with family members, regular access to showers, clean clothes, toothbrushes, proper beds, or medical care, for weeks at a time. Children as young as two or three were held in these facilities without adult caregivers. Families and adults were also held in dangerously overcrowded facilities for longer than the 72-hour legal limit.
US officials continued to regularly separate migrant children from adult relatives, including from parents in some cases. A government watchdog agency found children separated from parents have experienced severe trauma. Despite this, the Trump administration announced a new regulation that would allow children and their families to be detained indefinitely and thereby risk severe trauma.
Three migrant children died in 2019 shortly after entering the US, following the deaths of three children in 2018, the first deaths of children in US immigration custody in a decade. At least seven adults died in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP); six adults died in the custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Deaths in detention have previously been linked to poor medical care in US detention facilities.
The number of immigrants in ICE custody reached a record high of 55,000 people per day, even as new governmental reports revealed egregious violations of governmental detention standards. Several detainees on hunger strike were force-fed using a process that is inherently cruel, inhuman, and degrading.
In August, the administration released a rule that could allow the federal government to deny permanent residency (“green cards”) to immigrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers, or other forms of public assistance, generating fear among non-citizens in need of these services from accessing them.
The Trump administration repeatedly threatened mass raids, stoking fear in immigrant communities. In August, US immigration authorities arrested 680 people in raids on food processing plants in Mississippi, the largest workplace raid in the US in over a decade. Immigrant workers in the meat and poultry industry experience serious workplace abuses but fear of deportation prevents many from speaking out. The US continued to deport long-term residents without appropriate consideration of their family and community ties, or their fears of harm if returned to their home countries.
Despite these ongoing abuses, Congress continued to authorize the administration’s requests for additional funding for immigration agencies with insufficient requirements for standards, oversight, and transparency.
Surveillance and Data Protection
The US lacks comprehensive national data protection laws, including laws that prevent law enforcement from obtaining unnecessary and disproportionate access to personal data. Through the unacknowledged practice of “parallel construction,” the subject of a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, the government has been able to use data from secret surveillance programs in criminal investigations, and then reconstruct that evidence through other means, without disclosing the secret monitoring to judges or defendants. This deprives litigants of the chance to challenge potentially unlawful surveillance, and makes surveillance especially difficult for courts to review in the US.
In August, the Trump administration asked Congress to renew section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which has enabled the National Security Agency (NSA) to gather, store, and search hundreds of millions of US telephone records in violation of human rights. The then-director of national intelligence (DNI) admitted in a letter to Congress that the NSA had suspended this program due to longstanding legal and technical difficulties and had deleted the data it had previously stored. Nevertheless, the DNI argued that Congress should keep this massive surveillance provision on the books for future use. The law was due to expire in December 2019 in the absence of congressional action.
Freedom of Expression
President Trump continued to attack news media outlets throughout 2019, characterizing them as, among other things, “the enemy of the people” and “degenerate[s].” These attacks not only erode public trust in the media, but also increase the threat of violence against journalists and other media workers.
The public release of a criminal indictment of Julian Assange, creator of WikiLeaks, for alleged violations of the Espionage Act prompted widespread concern among journalists that the government could begin prosecuting media outlets that publish classified information—even if release of the information is in the public interest. Such prosecutions would hinder media freedom and impede the public’s right to receive information.
A leaked government document showed that CBP had made a list of journalists, activists, and others addressing immigration issues near the country’s southern border; some of these individuals said they were subjected to extra questioning by officials when crossing the border, potentially discouraging activities protected by the right to free expression.
Men espousing white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and misogynist views continued to carry out mass shootings in 2019. In El Paso, Texas, a man allegedly killed 22 people and injured 27 others after posting a racist text online. In California, a man allegedly killed a woman and wounded three other congregants at a synagogue. In Dayton, Ohio, a man who reportedly had a history of threatening behavior toward women killed nine people and injured 27 more.
The ability of the shooters to obtain military-style weapons to carry out these killings fueled growing public support for stronger federal laws restricting some access to guns.
Despite a rise in white supremacist attacks over the past decade, particularly since 2016, and evidence that some perpetrators are part of a growing transnational white supremacist movement, US law enforcement agencies have devoted far fewer resources to preventing such attacks than to the threat of attacks inspired by extreme interpretations of Islam. In September, the Department of Homeland Security added white supremacist violence to its list of priority threats for the first time since the list was formed after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The US continues to indefinitely detain 31 men without charge at Guantanamo Bay, all of whom have been imprisoned for well over a decade, some since 2002. The prosecutions continue of seven men on terrorism-related charges, including five on charges connected to the September 11, 2001 attacks, before Guantanamo’s military commissions, which do not meet international fair trial standards and have been plagued by procedural problems and years of delays. Two men convicted before the commissions are also at Guantanamo, one serving a life sentence and the other awaiting sentencing.