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Immigration-reform advocates take appeal to an international stage

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WASHINGTON – After months of pushing national leaders for action on immigration reform, advocates Monday took their appeal to an international stage, telling the Organization of American States that U.S. immigration policy violates human rights.

A coalition of church groups, academics, labor unions and others appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to argue that current deportation policies run afoul of “international human rights standards” and violate due process rights of deportees.

A State Department official did not respond to the allegations, saying the agency had not time to prepare a response because of the government shutdown earlier this month. But department officials “are here to carefully listen,” he said.

But advocates said that fact that Monday’s hearing was held made an important point.

“What’s significant about this is that an international human rights body is really shining a light on an immigration policy that has created a massive criminalization and deportation dragnet program,” said Salvador Sarmiento, legislative director of National Day Laborer Organizing Network, one of the groups on the panel.

The panel included 20 faith-based groups, 15 academics, as well as mental health professionals who study the health effects of immigration policy.

Robert Pauw, the attorney who presented the petition for the panel, said U.S. authorities can decide whether or not to deport people who are in this country illegally but they choose not to.

The government needs to take family unity into consideration when it considers whether or not to proceed with a deportation, Pauw said. Current U.S. policies contravene international human rights standards protecting children and family unity, he said, as well as fundamental due process and workers’ rights.

But Lawrence Gumbiner, the U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States, said “with the government closed and most of its employees furloughed, we lost the time essential for us to engage our inter-agency colleagues and prepare for the hearing.”

“We are here to carefully listen to what petitioners and witnesses have to say and take on board any questions and comments from the commission,” Gumbiner said.

He said he would follow up in writing in the next 30 days on all the issues raised by the advocates.

Commission members took the testimony with little comment and little or no questioning of the handful of witnesses. They concluded the hearing by saying they would investigate the claims and that they looked forward to the State Department’s responses.

Maria Isabel Rivero, an OAS spokeswoman, said “there is no usual procedure after a hearing,” but “the Commission receives the information and then discusses as a collegiate body what to do.”

Monday’s immigration was one of 14 scheduled to be heard by the commission, on topics ranging from treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Honduran judicial independence to the rights of children in Haiti.

Sarmiento said “no international mechanism is the panacea for all of these issues” and that he hopes for a domestic solution to the problems the groups cited.

But “the OAS human rights system is one additional avenue which we are trying to dialogue with the United States government.”

“Hopefully, we will continue this dialogue, and this will be another table that we sit down (at),” he said.