Why Immigrant Rights are Human Rights

A few years ago, a former Mayor of Portland, Oregon asked me the question “why are immigrant rights human rights?” I responded with a clumsy jumble of words having something to do with the United Nations and about ten other things adding up to a total of about 11 too many ideas all poorly articulated.

5 minutes after leaving his office the answer I wish I’d given came to me. I ran it over in my head all the way home. It went something like this:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. The Nazi atrocities that committed during that war inspired the United Nations to convene The Commission on Human Rights to draft a the Declaration as a foundation upon which the Commission would create covenants and conventions that aspired to ensure that atrocities like those committed in Nazi Germany could never be repeated.

Approximately 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis. In addition, between 250 thousand and 1.5 million Romani, 25,000 LGBT people, 2-3 million Russian prisoners of war, and as many as 2 million ethnic Slavs were also killed.

In the face of such horrors, it was deemed necessary to acknowledge the right of people to move freely, including the right to cross national borders and seek asylum from persecution and oppression.

That’s why immigration is a human right.

These rights are described in Articles 13 and 14. They read,

Article 13.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  • (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Today, in order to live by the spirit of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if not the original wording of its writers, we have to address the many forces beyond war and political persecution that drive migration.

For example, consider Mexico. Unfair U.S. trade policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement have devastated the Mexican economy. It is the most powerful force driving Mexicans to immigrate to the U.S. without documents. These people over whose heads we are fighting about “illegal” immigration are economic refugees.

And they are only among the latest wave.

For decades, U.S. agribusiness has laid claim to rich agricultural lands in the global south. Once there they turn farmers into farm workers and inwardly directed, sovereign economies where people grow crops and make things for their own consumption are turned into export economies where locals are dependent on imported goods they must purchase with their wages. These export economies are often based on single crops such as pineapples or sugar. The people of these communities become dependent on the wages they receive from multinational corporations and these corporations’ local contractors. Over generations, they may even lose the knowledge necessary to return to what they once were.

Regardless, when more profitable labor markets open elsewhere, companies leave and communities are devastated. People are impoverished and then driven out, forced to follow the money. But though capital is free to cross borders, people are not. By building fences legally or literally, we are banishing them to a kind of poverty most of us in the U.S. could not begin to imagine.

And agribusiness is only one type of enterprise that is robbing people around the world of sovereignty and self-determination.

Our understanding of human rights must adapt to a changing world. As long as capital can move freely, making people dependent on foreign incomes, people should be able to follow the profits they helped to produce, even if it means crossing our national borders.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

10 replies on “Why Immigrant Rights are Human Rights”

Thank you for making this important, complex issue of immigration (human) rights accessible to someone like me. I always know in my gut what I believe in–that all human beings should be treated fairly, equitably, and with dignity and respect, but I don’t consider myself politically aware, and so your articles always help by giving me the facts, history and policies that solidify my beliefs.

Also, a major thanks for linking to my blog. I truly appreciate i1.

“Our understanding of human rights must adapt to a changing world.”

Thanks for your post. I think most Americans have largely lacked a real understanding of “human rights” especially as it can be applied domestically (duh…kind of like NIMBY). Translating human rights in the contexts of the experiences of people of color in the USA has largely gone over America’s head as the country has avoided at all cost any real discussion on race and equity. The country’s populus as a whole is only just beginning to pay attention to the issue of immigrant rights as it can’t be avoided with the present Presidential Race. Human Rights? How much has the USA really participated in or embraced the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in the first place? The UN simply is housed on our shores but hasn’t the country largely side stepped human rights measures? Haven’t we primarily utilized the UN as a measure to talk back to other countries with our “dominance” being primarily our agenda? One of these days I’m going to do the research to answer these questions I have had for several years (i.e UN’s real relevance to the USA). I am optomistic that the US is moving in a direction of not being able to run away from and stick its’ head in the mud on the pervasive systemic, institutional racism that has continued to further anchor itself in this society despite the laws that the civil rights movement ushered in. Laws don’t necessarily change hearts. Having Barack Obama, a Black man with a Muslim sounding name be elected to POTUS has ushered in a cataclysmic bubbling of raw emotions,speech, hate from some folks. We finally have the opportunity to put all the issues that are directly linked to racism to the forefront even if the media, our POTUS and his challenger refuse to call it like you do. American still cringes at that. I’m ready, POTUS has my VOTE, let’s see how boldly we march toward these debates and November 6th. This is a defining moment for America. For me it’s about much more than the economy alone!! Thank you always for your candor on RACE!

Thank you for your comment. I look forward to reading your research one day!

Anti-immigrant, especially anti-latino racism has swept across the continent. In my hometown a video went viral of a cop beating a woman to the ground at the Puerto Rican Day festival for no reason. There is a very racist perception of Puerto Ricans in the city. A white male classmate of mine once said to me that a teacher of our wears a thong because she is Puerto Rican.

Thanks for posting this, it’s sad that people actually need to read to figure out that the concept of immigrant and human rights is racist, absurd, culturally/historically detached and dehumanizing.

“As long as capital can move freely, making people dependent on foreign incomes, people should be able to follow the profits they helped to produce, even if it means crossing our national borders”.

I do think a system that is truly free market would allow for the free movement of labor as well as capital, as difficult as that may be to manage for countries. And if that free movement of labor is difficult to manage, then maybe we need to reconsider how we currently regulate our markets, which right now seems to be giving the corporations the benefits of a free unregulated market, but the not the labor (for example, anti-union laws). It’s almost like corporations have more rights than people……

I read an academic paper a few years ago that first introduced me to the idea that denying someone the right to citizenship in at least one country (like what happens with war/economic/domestic violence/etc. refugees) is a human rights violation, b/c this person is living without the benefits that come with citizenship (and there are some benefits that come with any citizenship, if the country has a legitimate government that feels responsible to its citizens). I think there may be more exploration of that concept in international law now.

I do think a system that is truly free market would allow for the free movement of labor as well as capital

Reason’s not to*

1. Low-skilled immigration drives down the wages of the native low-skilled.

“… while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration — especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education … they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans.”

2. In contrast, under most circumstances, free movement of capital (free trade) does not.

“In an economy that isn’t in a liquidity trap, one can reasonably assume that jobs lost due to Chinese exports will be offset by jobs gained elsewhere, although that may be small comfort to the workers affected.”

3. Welfare State:

“…open immigration can’t coexist with a strong social safety net; if you’re going to assure health care and a decent income to everyone, you can’t make that offer global.”

4. Income Inequality:

“…it’s clear that the earlier wave of immigration increased inequality and depressed the wages of the less skilled.”

*All the quotes are from the world’s most influential left-wing economist, Paul Krugman.

I’m not sure I would call Paul Krugman a left wing economist nor that being left wing is equivalent to being right. As you’re a right winger, I find it ironic that you quote him.

But, here’s something to ponder. The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is approximately equivalent to the number of unemployed adults in MX. MX is the U.S.’s second largest trading partner. Foreign remittances are one of their largest sources of revenue for MX.

It would actually have a net negative impact on the U.S. economy to deport undocumented immigrants or to simply have a closed border policy.

Beyond that, simply reducing people to economic units and overlooking the fact that we’re extracting capital from their economy using unfair trade policies and then allowing that capital to pool in the hands of a relatively small number of people while shutting them out points to some obvious solutions, among which to would be to set international trade standards that take workers into consideration as much as capitalists.

For the first time, I find that your comments don’t follow a consistent logic.

It would actually have a net negative impact on the U.S. economy to deport undocumented immigrants or to simply have a closed border policy.

Krugman agrees. He says there is a net benefit to low-skilled immigration. But the benefits are small:

“…the benefits of immigration to the population already here are small.”

Low-skilled immigration drives down prices and that benefits us all. The problem is that it disproportionately hurts the native poor. Krugman again:

“My second negative point is that immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants. That’s just supply and demand: we’re talking about large increases in the number of low-skill workers relative to other inputs into production, so it’s inevitable that this means a fall in wages. Mr. Borjas and Mr. Katz have to go through a lot of number-crunching to turn that general proposition into specific estimates of the wage impact, but the general point seems impossible to deny.”

I wasn’t taking a position against immigration, and certainly was not advocating deportation. But I’m a RWinger, so I’m not particularly concerned about the survival of our welfare state (tho I’m open to argument).

But I think we all need to be on the same page in regards to the facts. There is some wiggle room, but Krugman is reluctantly stating what does indeed happen when mass low-skilled immigration occurs: the wages of the native poor go down, income inequality goes up, and the Welfare State becomes less feasible.

Or, look at it from the other side of the equation. It is no coincidence that the great increase in income inequality correlates to a great increase in immigration. Ditto for the New Deal and restrictions. Krugman again:

“Conversely, the restrictions on immigration imposed in the 1920s had the unintended effect of paving the way for the New Deal and sustaining its achievements, by creating a fully enfranchised working class.”

Again, this isn’t terribly problematic for a guy like me. But for folks like you, its a real conundrum.

Where I disagree is with the notion that the native poor are poor because of undocumented immigrants. They are poor because of economic inequality, not just in terms of exploitation of workers but in terms of the disproportionate power over government of those with the most capital who thus set the rules such that poverty and unemployment are systemic, and use the threat of poverty and unemployment in order to control wages. That, to me, is what the whole safety net debate revolves around.

For instance, I worked for a couple of years in Appalachia where the problem of poverty certainly crosses race. The coal camps there are poor because wages are set extremely low, jobs disappear when it is cheaper to move to the next mountain, the environment is devastated by mountaintop removal making farming virtually impossible in many areas, the water is loaded with heavy metals making it dangerous to drink and fish from, and there is almost no public investment in those communities because the companies often pay very little if any local taxes and, additionally, offshore much of their profits. In fact, in many cases are in fact foreign companies.

Yet, in that same region, folks are fighting over the notion that undocumented workers are taking their jobs. The reality is, the whole fight over immigration vs jobs is a distraction from the real issue of monopoly capital and lack of corporate accountability.

Undocumented workers aren’t fixing wages at a lower level; employers are. Blaming undocumented workers for that is blaming the victim.

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