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Could an International Migrants' Bill of Rights Actually Work?

Georgetown developed legal framework to help immigrants worldwide, but will it actually ease the immigration debate?

by Greg Thomas
Dec 19 2012, 3:44pm
An immigrant rights demonstration in NYC in 2010, via Getty Images

The unending debate over immigration in the US isn't going to be solved with political rhetoric, as evidenced by the long stalling of the Dream Act. It's an issue that's not limited to the US, either; millions of migrants worldwide are left as second-class non-citizens in their new homes. With an increasingly mobile world, there's still little legal framework discussing what rights migrants have.

Filling that gap is the goal of the newly minted International Migrants Bill of Rights. The document, billed as a "universal declaration of human rights for all categories of international migrants," was released on International Migrants Day on Dec. 18. It's the brainchild of a group of students, alumni and academics at universities in Washington, DC, London, Cairo and Jerusalem. It's led by the Georgetown University Law Center. The student-led Initiative took root in 2007, according to an announcement of the document.

"Migrants, regardless of immigration status and motive for migration, are individuals with basic human rights," says IMBR Initiative Program Director Bianca Santos, in the release. "All too often, countries that have committed to upholding human rights violate the rights of migrants on a vast scale. The IMBR seeks to protect migrants from the egregious human rights violations that are occurring all around the world."

We can assume the document is intended as a mechanism for coordinating global migrant policies, but Santos' remarks above are as specific a statement of purpose as the scholars give for introducing the bill. An abstract of the document, published in 2010 on Georgetown's website, sheds a bit more light on the ultimate aim of the bill: "While protection of the rights of migrants is among the oldest areas of international law, increasingly the discourse of rights triggers concerns about the subversion of sovereignty."

"In the vacuum perpetrated by this status quo, migrants remain exposed to widespread human rights abuses and with nothing to invoke in their defense," the abstract reads.

The bill pulls principles from international laws and the U.S. Bill of Rights, but it most clearly reflects the United Nations International Bill of Human Rights. That charter, adopted in 1976, was born out of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was written in 1948 shortly after wartime. It was an expression of the allies' motives for pursuing war against Nazi Germany. One has to wonder what exactly prompted Georgetown's new rendition of that idea and, necessarily, which war the scholars are attempting to fight with the bill. 

It even begins with a Preamble.

In a stately tone reminiscent of the country's founding documents, declares that "all persons, including migrants, are equal before the law" and asserts that the current Bill of Rights "applies to all migrants without distinction of any kind." That is a departure from the rigid immigration rules of the US and elsewhere, with migrants not seen as equal under the law. (I'm sure some of you are already wondering what the point of citizenship is under this framework.) But it's certainly worth discussing, because while fences won't fix immigration problem, economics and a smarter legal system might.

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