By Melissa Crow
Katrina Policy Attorney
Representatives of national civil rights organizations and community groups based in the Gulf Coast appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Mar. 3, 2006, to allege that the U.S. government's response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has contravened internationally recognized human rights norms. In particular, the hurricane survivors and advocates presented testimony delineating the ways in which the government's disaster planning, immediate response, and ongoing recovery and reconstruction efforts violated the rights of low-income African American and immigrant communities under international law. The hearing, which took place six months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, was granted in response to a request from 27 organizations, including the National Immigration Law Center. A copy of the letter requesting a hearing is available here (PDF).
The Inter-American Commission is an independent human rights body established by the Organization of American States, an international organization comprised of countries in the Americas. The commission's functions include monitoring governments' conduct and making recommendations intended to promote respect for and defense of human rights.
Roxanna Altholz of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley opened the hearing by emphasizing the need to protect the human rights of victims of natural disasters. Testimony was presented by Jessica Wyndham of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement; Victoria Cintra of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance; Leah Hodges of the Causeway Concentration Camp Foundation; and Monique Harden of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. Wyndham gave an overview of the international legal framework that applies in disaster settings, including the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which require governments to provide basic humanitarian assistance to all survivors regardless of their immigration status. The applicable international norms provide a yardstick by which to measure the U.S. government's response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes. As the advocates who spoke after Wyndham plainly established, the U.S. government's conduct has fallen short of the protections afforded to survivors of natural disasters.
Cintra emphasized that many immigrant populations were not adequately warned of the threat posed by the hurricanes because evacuation orders and hurricane advisories were issued only in English. She also noted that the government's failure to assure all survivors that they could safely seek emergency aid regardless of their immigration status, coupled with increased immigration enforcement following the hurricanes, deterred many immigrants and refugees from coming forward. This omission contrasted sharply with the assurances against deportation provided to the immigrant community in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy and after Hurricane Charley hit Florida in 2004. (For more information, see “Administration's Failure to Reassure Leads to Fear, Isolation, and Hardship in Immigrant Communities Affected by Hurricanes (PDF),” Immigrants' Rights Update, Oct. 21, 2005, pp. 45.) In some cases, Cintra reported, the American Red Cross, a federal instrumentality, flatly denied assistance to foreign-born individuals.
Hodges's and Harden's testimony highlighted the impact of the hurricanes on African American communities and the importance of consultation with the affected populations during long-term recovery and reconstruction. Hodges described the harrowing conditions to which she and other African Americans who fled their flooded homes and neighborhoods in New Orleans had been subjected while detained for four days by the U.S. military at a highway exit. Harden discussed federal, state, and local proposals to reduce the size of New Orleans in a way that would wipe out historically African American neighborhoods. She also noted that upcoming elections in New Orleans have been organized in a way that will preclude the primarily African American displaced population from voting from the locations where they are currently living. In addition, she discussed the unfounded stigmatization of African Americans in New Orleans as criminals, which has resulted in violent acts against them by armed vigilantes and law enforcement officials and has discouraged African Americans from seeking temporary housing in certain neighborhoods. Harden concluded by emphasizing the need for a comprehensive plan for assisting hurricane survivors, akin to the U.S. Agency for International Development's policy for responding to overseas disasters.
Many of the advocates also addressed the U.S. government's violations of the rights of workers involved in reconstruction efforts. Only days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, President George Bush suspended application of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the payment of the local prevailing wage for work performed under federal contracts. The administration also issued a notice informing employers in the hurricane-damaged areas that the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security would refrain from enforcing the employer sanctions provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which prohibit employers from knowingly hiring workers who are not eligible to be employed in the U.S. In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) waived enforcement of health and safety regulations in areas affected by the hurricanes. These OSHA regulations remain suspended in the areas that suffered the greatest damage.
As rebuilding began and the demand for workers in the construction trades exploded, federal contractors and subcontractors have consequently been able to exploit workers, including thousands of Latino immigrants who were lured to the area under false pretenses, with little oversight or accountability. Reconstruction workers have reported a litany of violations, including underpayment and nonpayment of wages, egregious violations of health and safety standards, and failure to provide workers' compensation insurance for job-related injuries. To date, the U.S. Dept. of Labor's enforcement efforts remain woefully inadequate. Indeed, of all the federal laws that apply to workers (and employers) in the region, only immigration laws have been consistently enforced, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have conducted opportunistic raids of Gulf Coast reconstruction worksites.
The hearing participants asked the commission to undertake an immediate, on-site visit to the Gulf Coast to investigate the human rights issues discussed during the hearing and in the written submissions of the advocates. Following such an investigation, the participants called on the commission to formulate recommendations to the U.S. government delineating the steps necessary to bring its natural disaster planning, response, and reconstruction into compliance with its international human rights obligations.