1. US Should Rescind Guatemala Agreement that Compels Asylum-Seekers to Abandon Claims
  2. Gerrymandering Explored in Film ‘Slay the Dragon', Experts to Address US Elections
  3. Growing Concerns About Racial Bias in Social-Distancing Arrests
  4. US Children Are Going Hungry at Record Levels
  5. High-Stakes Trial over Voting Rights in Florida Nears Conclusion
  6. Exacerbated Maternal Health Challenges Loom for African Americans Amid Covid-19
  7. Trump Signs Executive Order Keeping Meatpacking Plants Open Amid Rise in Worker Deaths
  8. ‘Action to Protect Voting Rights Is Urgently Needed,’ Warns Nicole Austin-Hillery in CNN.com Op-Ed
  9. What You Should Know About Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration
  10. US Meatpacking Workers Face Crisis, Slashed Safety Protections During Pandemic
  11. Michigan Father, Son Die from Covid-19 After Family Reportedly Begged Hospitals for Help
  12. As US Debates Reopening, Trump Announces Intention to Suspend Immigration
  13. Amid Pandemic, Elected and Aspiring Leaders Should Look to Rev. Joseph Lowery
  14. What Wisconsin’s Elections Say About the Voting Rights Battle Ahead
  15. COVID-19 Is Upending Life and Elections in the US. What’s Next?
  16. US 2020 Candidates Should Set Racial Justice as a Higher Priority
  17. Amnesty International USA to Host Presidential Candidate Forum on Asylum and Immigration Issues
  18. Live from the Field: Safety First for Asylum Seekers
  19. In 2020, a Chance to Commit the US to Human Rights
  20. US Representatives Join Calls to End Harmful 'Remain in Mexico' Program
  21. Voting for Human Rights: A Guide for 2020
  22. First US blog post

2020 US Elections and Human Rights

The winners of the 2020 US national, state, and local elections will have the opportunity to pass laws and implement policies that will affect our lives for generations to come. Are the 2020 contenders making the commitments needed to fight our climate crisis? Do their policy positions uphold – or undermine – our rights to get health care, feed our children, and receive fair treatment from the officials responsible for keeping us safe? As election day draws near, Human Rights Watch and partners provide insight and analysis to help voters make sense of the human rights issues at stake and hold candidates to account.

US Should Rescind Guatemala Agreement that Compels Asylum-Seekers to Abandon Claims

Yesterday, Refugees International and Human Rights Watch released a joint report showing that the Asylum Cooperative Agreement between the United States and Guatemala effectively compels Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers to abandon their claims, leading many to return to possible harm in their country of origin.

“Under the agreement, the United States has rapidly transferred non-Guatemalan asylum seekers to Guatemala without allowing them to lodge asylum claims in the US,” a news release from Refugees International and Human Rights Watch states. “Given Guatemala’s inability to provide effective protection and the risk that some transferees face the threat of serious harm either in Guatemala or after returning to their home countries, the US violates its obligation to examine their asylum claims by implementing the agreement.”

Advocates of immigrants’ rights have responded to the findings of the report across social media.

2020 candidates for office should heed the report authors’ recommendations: “The US and Guatemalan governments should rescind the Guatemalan agreement rather than plan for its resumption. The US should also halt plans to begin transferring non-national asylum seekers to El Salvador and Honduras under similar agreements.”

Gerrymandering Explored in Film ‘Slay the Dragon', Experts to Address US Elections

How do you defeat a system that allows politicians to legally and unapologetically suppress the will of voters?

This question is at the center of Slay the Dragon, an inspiring new documentary from Participant Films about the quest to end gerrymandering ahead of the 2020 US elections. Human Rights Watch Los Angeles Film Club  – which is inviting the public to view Slay the Dragon online for free – is hosting a virtual Q&A Sunday at 6pm PST/9pm EDT featuring the documentary’s protagonist, The People Executive Director Katie Fahey, along with leading voices from Human Rights Watch and the NAACP. The discussion on voting rights in the 2020 elections comes as the United States grapples with how to make voting fair and accessible in the era of Covid-19.

Gerrymandering is complex in its history and approach, but Slay the Dragon deftly illuminates increasingly brazen efforts to manipulate US elections. State legislatures engaged in gerrymandering rig the system by redrawing district maps in twisted ways, often with the aid of new mapmaking software. With voters of the rival party now squeezed and consolidated into these new districts, the party behind the redistricting increases its chances of winning elections even if it loses the popular vote.

Michigan is known to have one of the most manipulatively drawn electoral maps in the country, which as the film explains, played a role in the deadly Flint water crisis. The documentary follows Katie Fahey, an everyday Millennial who goes on to lead an enormously successful anti-gerrymandering campaign that puts the power back in the hands of voters.

Fahey will be joined at Sunday’s virtual event by Jamal Watkins, vice president of civic engagement at the NAACP, Dreisen Heath, advocacy officer at Human Rights Watch, and Gerry Johnson, editor and senior strategist at Human Rights Watch.

When: Slay the Dragon is available for free viewing through May 17. The virtual Q&A starts at 6pm PST/9pm EDT.

Where: Click here to join the virtual discussion.

Growing Concerns About Racial Bias in Social-Distancing Arrests

On Wednesday, New York State Attorney General Letitia James called on the New York Police Department to enforce social distancing rules without racial bias, following reports that people of color are being disproportinately targeted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Data shows that Black and brown people comprised nearly 68 percent of social distancing arrests in the city between March 16 and May 5, and Latinos another 24 percent. Black and Brown people received more than 80 percent of summonses related to the state of emergency.

“The apparent unequal enforcement of social distancing policies is deeply troubling, and deepens the divide between law enforcement and the people they are tasked to protect,” James said. “It is inherently wrong to aggressively police one group of people, yet ignore another group that commits the same infraction. The NYPD must better ensure that a New Yorker’s race, color, and neighborhood does not determine how they are patrolled.”

Concerns over discriminatory enforcement of social distancing rules extend far beyond New York. ProPublica examined court records in Ohio and released an analysis finding that “black people were at least four times as likely to be charged with violating the stay-at-home order as white people.” 

Mass incarceration in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions exacerbates the threat of Covid-19,  and overpolicing plays a significant role in putting people behind bars, often for low-level offenses. Candidates for public office should push to reform the criminal justice system, including policing practices, in ways that substantially reduce unnecessary arrests and incarceration.  As Human Rights Watch reported this month, "limitations on arrests and transportation of people to jails will protect those arrested and the police.”

US Children Are Going Hungry at Record Levels

As the Covid-19 outbreak rages on, two new national surveys on hunger in the United States are in -- and the news is not good. There's been an alarming rise in the number of families struggling to put food on the table, according to the COVID Impact Survey and the Brookings Institution's Survey of Mothers with Young Children. Brookings fellow Lauren Bauer crunched the numbers and showed that, due to the pandemic, food insecurity in the country has increased -- and households with children 12 years of age and under are experiencing hunger like at no other time in modern history.

Elected officials and 2020 candidates for office should support the expansion of SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, to address the growing number of families experiencing hunger. With the three previous Covid-19 relief packages passed by Congress falling short of providing necessary aid and protections for families in poverty, future relief packages should focus on meeting the basic needs of those most in distress.

The consequences of failing to curb food insecurity can be dire, particularly for the US children who are experiencing more hunger than ever during the pandemic. Children who go without adequate amounts of food are at greater risk of developing mental and behaviorial health challenges and chronic illnesses, and face obstacles to academic achievement.


High-Stakes Trial over Voting Rights in Florida Nears Conclusion

Returning citizen Desmond Meade and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, left, registers to vote.

© John Raoux/AP Photo

By Alison Leal Parker

In November 2018, Floridians struck a major blow against discriminatory voting laws when they went to the ballot box. They approved Amendment 4 in an overwhelming majority, restoring the voting rights of most people in the state with felony convictions. It was an important step toward realizing the American ideal of free and fair elections.

The victory proved to be short-lived. Soon after the vote, the Florida legislature passed a law that once again put people’s ability to vote in jeopardy. SB 7066 requires citizens with felony convictions – whose right to cast a ballot had just been restored – to pay various fines, fees, or restitution, known as legal financial obligations or “LFOs,” before they can vote.

Seventeen plaintiffs, represented by voting rights groups including the ACLU, NAACP LDF, the Brennan Center, and the Campaign Legal Center, are challenging the law in the case Jones v. DeSantis. Last week, I listened to part of the telephone trial, which is now in its final week in the US district court for the Northern District of Florida. The outcome could decide whether hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated Floridians are barred from voting this year due to payment requirements.

The testimony I heard included an exchange between plaintiff’s counsel and Doug Bakke, chief operations officer for the clerk of court for Florida’s Hillsborough County. It made clear that many voters in Florida are unable to pay the LFOs at issue.

Bakke explained that the vast majority of fines, fees, and restitution in Florida go unpaid. He told the court that the “more pure or true collection rate is anywhere between 3 and 8 percent of fines and fees assessed.” In a separate line of questioning he agreed that the average LFOs assessed in a first or second degree felony case would be $5,214 – an amount beyond reach for the majority of Americans according to an October 2019 study by JP Morgan Chase, which reported an inability to cope with unexpected bills above $700 for a low-income family and $2000 for a middle-income family. The Chase study was published well before the financial impacts of Covid-19 began to take effect.

But human rights law is clear that individuals’ voting rights cannot hinge on how much money is in their bank account.

Both Florida’s original disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions who had completed their sentences, and SB 7066 requiring payment of LFOs, violate international human rights law. As early as 1998, in a joint report with the Sentencing Project, Human Rights Watch stated that felony disenfranchisement after sentence completion, especially for a broad category of offenses like all felonies, violates article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty to which the United States is a party.

Requiring that people pay fines, fees, and restitution violates that treaty’s requirement that the right to vote not be subject to a “distinction of any kind, such as…race…property, birth or other status.” Whether or not a person can afford these fees, the requirement to pay before voting is unreasonable as it amounts to a de facto restriction on the right to vote based on property requirements. It's also inconsistent with the state's obligation to take effective measures to ensure that all persons entitled to vote can do so.

Putting aside these unreasonable restrictions on the right to vote, even if a Florida citizen was able to pay, it’s often impossible to determine how much a particular voter owes. Testimony in this week’s trial revealed that for many potential voters in Florida with felony criminal records, it will be impossible to determine whether they have any legal financial obligations to the state; and if they do, how much they owe. This may be particularly true for those with convictions from the 1980s or earlier.

In an exchange between plaintiff’s counsel and Bakke regarding Pastor Clifford Tyson, a Florida citizen who had felony convictions dating as far back as 1978, Bakke said, regarding the accuracy of the LFO records, “The older the case, the less confidence I would have.”

As plaintiff’s counsel walked Bakke through the various aspects Pastor Tyson’s records, which included old and more recent convictions from the mid 1990s, she asked, “can you tell me today how much Pastor Tyson still owes?”

The answer: “I believe it is still the $2. I have no records to indicate whether or not the costs of supervision have been paid.” Further exchanges regarding separate records held by the clerk’s office introduced the possibility that Tyson owed $271; or possibly $259. The testimony left unclear whether or not additional restitution payments were required of Tyson. In an interview with the Brennan Center for Justice, Pastor Tyson explained that he lives off of a disability payment of $7,600 per year. If he could ever determine the actual amount he owes the state of Florida, it may be an amount beyond his ability to pay.

This testimony laid bare a basic but irrefutable fact: It’s very difficult or impossible for many people with felony convictions in Florida to pay their LFOs. That’s both because they cannot afford to pay the LFOs and because the state is unable to tell them through any centralized system how much they owe.

Although Covid-19 wasn’t addressed directly, the testimony also made clear that the crisis only makes Florida’s chaos around voting rights worse. The Jones trial is being held telephonically because courts have been closed for non-essential services in light of the public health emergency. For those same reasons, returning citizens will struggle to get help or information from court officials like the clerk who testified yesterday, and other offices are unlikely to be open to take payments.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, some Florida citizens were too poor to pay restitution, fines, and fees. Now, as the state’s recordkeeping proves unprepared to navigate SB 7066 and hundreds of thousands of people's voting rights hang in the balance, Florida must ensure voting rights in the context of a global pandemic. The court’s ruling will have enormous implications for the constitutional and human right to vote in Florida as the Covid-19 crisis rages on.

Alison Leal Parker is managing director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch.

Exacerbated Maternal Health Challenges Loom for African Americans Amid Covid-19

Going through pregnancy is challenging for many parents. But for Black women in the United States, the dangers are heightened. Black women face a maternal death rate that’s more than double that of their white counterparts. The troubling figures reflect a nation whose health care experiences and outcomes are divided along racial lines.

Annerieke Daniel, a fellow in the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, knows the racial disparities all too well. During her pregnancy last July, she was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a condition that disproportionately affects and kills African-American women. Daniel, who is Black, wrote about her experience in an essay published on Sunday by the LA Review of Books. The piece sheds light on the systemic challenges that Black rural women face in accessing maternal health care – and how the Covid-19 crisis threatens to make it worse.

“As the pandemic overwhelms our healthcare system and leads to shortages in medical providers and supplies, pregnant women will suffer, and the many Black women living in rural areas who already lack access to an obstetrician or hospital will have an even tougher time,” Daniel writes. “Health disparities that existed long before the pandemic will contribute to the alarming rate at which COVID-19 is infecting, and killing, Black Americans.”

The maternal health crisis is due in part to states’ refusal to expand Medicaid, which has contributed to the closure of rural hospitals in the South. As Daniel reports, there were 45 hospitals serving rural Alabama in 1980. In 2016, there were only 16.

Public policies have a direct impact on the prenatal care and number of hospital beds available to rural Americans and all people in need, making it important for elected officials and those running for office in 2020 to address the crisis head-on. Daniels encourages policy makers to consider expanding Medicaid eligibility to increase coverage rates. Medicaid expansion, she says, “could help stem the high number of rural hospital closures and ensure that women can deliver their babies in safe and respectful circumstances.”

Read Daniel’s entire essay at the LA Review of Books.

Trump Signs Executive Order Keeping Meatpacking Plants Open Amid Rise in Worker Deaths

President Trump issued an executive order on Tuesday night forcing US meatpacking plants to remain open, despite Covid-19 outbreaks at facilities leading to the deaths of plant workers across the country. The order comes after many of the nation’s largest meat processors closed or slowed production due to the rise in infections. As Human Rights Watch reported last week, workers are enduring the pandemic amid fewer safety protections due to rollbacks implemented by the Trump administration before the pandemic. 

In issuing his executive order, Trump cited the Defense Production Act in order to deem the plants "critical infruastructure." The president announced no new protections to protect employees.

Experts from Human Rights Watch, which has done extensive research on the dangers facing meatpacking workers, sounded off on the order.

“This is a terrible decision that puts the lives of meat and poultry plant workers at even greater risk,” tweeted Komala Ramachandra, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “At the same time, the Trump admin is rolling back protections, like line speed limits. How does this keep our workers or food supply safe?”

"The order requires plants to stay open; it does not require plants to follow CDC/OSHA guidance to keep workers safe,” tweeted Human Rights Watch senior researcher Grace Meng, referring to the US Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Under the Trump administration, OSHA is operating with the fewest safety and health inspectors in its 48-year history.

In her Human Rights Watch article last week, Ramachandra emphasized that the rollbacks of safety rules in meatpacking plants can be undone. "Reinstating protections should be a priority of candidates seeking voters’ trust in the 2020 elections," she writes. "Protecting all workers – especially those at the front lines who are risking their lives to feed the country– should be a priority for all branches of government."