Human Rights in the Americas. Review of 2019 - United States [AMR 01/1353/2020]


In 2019, the Trump administration launched discriminatory attacks, through both policy and practice, against the human rights of some of the most vulnerable individuals and communities in the USA. At the national and international levels, the US government sought to narrow human rights protections for sexual and reproductive rights and protections against discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people and others. At the US-Mexico border, in violation of national and international laws, the US authorities detained, ill-treated and turned away tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who requested international protection. As a result, unaccompanied children, families, LGBTI people and others faced abuses once stranded in northern Mexico as well as in US immigration detention centres. The Trump administration also increasingly misused the criminal justice system to threaten and harass human rights defenders, political opponents, whistleblowers and others.


In September, the US House of Representatives opened an impeachment inquiry to investigate multiple alleged abuses of power by President Trump. In advance of the 2020 general elections, political discourse became increasingly partisan and vitriolic, often targeting the human rights of vulnerable groups.


The US government has broadly disengaged from the international human rights system, including by forfeiting its membership of the UN Human Rights Council and reducing its financial contributions to the UN as a whole. Since January 2018, the USA has failed to respond to numerous communications from UN experts or accept their requests for invitations for official visits. In a July 2019 letter to Amnesty International, the US government indicated it now engages UN human rights procedures only when they “advance US foreign policy objectives”, thereby declining to cooperate with their examination of the human rights situation within the USA.

The US government also disengaged from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In July, the US Department of State announced the creation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights, which met for the first time in October. The US government established the commission with the stated intent to narrow US support for internationally recognized human rights. Its efforts are likely to unilaterally redefine human rights concepts, contrary to their definitions under international law, including by stripping protections from discrimination for women, LGBTI people and others.

In April, the USA also revoked the visa of the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor who was investigating possible war crimes by US forces and their allies in Afghanistan. This followed previous threats by the US Secretary of State in 2019 and the National Security Advisor in 2018 to target ICC officials with visa revocations, asset seizures or criminal prosecution were they to investigate US war crimes.


Dismantling refugee resettlement

The resettlement of refugees in the USA plummeted in the wake of the Trump Administration’s adoption of policies targeting refugees from Muslim-majority countries and Central America, such as the discriminatory “Muslim ban”, the implementation of enhanced vetting procedures and cuts to resettlement goals.[1] In September, the Administration announced its intention to decrease annual refugee admissions for Fiscal Year 2020 to 18,000, the lowest refugee admissions goal in the programme’s nearly 40-year history. The USA resettled zero refugees in October 2019, which is the first month of Fiscal Year 2020.

Externalization of asylum process at the southern border

The USA continued to implement increasingly draconian immigration policies to drastically limit access to asylum procedures at the US-Mexico border, resulting in irreparable harm to thousands of individuals and families. These policies included ongoing unlawful mass pushbacks of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers at the US-Mexico border (constituting refoulement); and the forced return to Mexico of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers under the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols” (also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy). In 2019, the authorities forced over 50,000 asylum-seekers to return to and stay in Mexico during the adjudication of their asylum claims, which can take months or years to complete. These policies placed asylum-seekers at unnecessary risk of potentially lethal violence and “chain refoulement” by the US and Mexican authorities, and violated their right to seek asylum.[2]

Arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of asylum seekers

The US authorities forcibly separated thousands of families seeking asylum, deliberately inflicting extreme suffering that was tantamount to torture in some cases. In January 2019, a government watchdog confirmed Amnesty International’s findings that the Administration had forcibly separated thousands more asylum-seeking families than it had previously admitted.

The authorities also detained asylum-seekers arbitrarily and indefinitely as a means of deterring them from seeking protection and/or compelling them to give up their asylum claims, thereby inflicting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Children, women, older people, LGBTI people and persons with disabilities or acute medical conditions were at particular risk of such ill-treatment from the agony of arbitrary detention and inadequate detention facilities. Asylum-seekers were detained for up to several years without the opportunity for parole, as parole requests were subject to blanket denials by US immigration authorities.[3]

Prolonged and indefinite detention of child asylum-seekers

Children detained at the Homestead “temporary influx” facility in Florida were held in prolonged and indefinite detention. In many cases, children were held at Homestead far beyond the 20 days permitted in the USA.[4]

In January, following pressure from members of Congress, Amnesty International and other organizations, the Administration closed its only other unlicensed facility for unaccompanied children, the Tornillo tent shelter in Texas. At the same time, authorities doubled the number of children held at the Homestead facility to over 2,000, who were subsequently transferred to other facilities in August. In June, a new “emergency influx shelter” was established in Carrizo Springs, Texas, which could house up to 1,300 unaccompanied migrant children until they are released to sponsors, including adult family members who already reside in the USA.

A new regulation issued by the Administration on 23 August could lead to the indefinite detention of children and families for immigration enforcement purposes.


Sexual and reproductive rights

Federal and state governments intensified efforts to curtail sexual and reproductive rights by seeking to criminalize pregnancy and abortion and limiting access to reproductive health services.[5] This risked increasing already high maternal mortality rates in the country.

Violence against women and girls

Indigenous women continued to experience disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual violence. A recent study by the Urban Indian Health Institute documented the cases of more than 500 Indigenous women and girls missing or killed in 71 cities throughout the USA. However, this figure is likely to understate the problem due to deficiencies in the data of both law enforcement and news media on this issue.

Rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI)

According to official data, incidents of hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity increased slightly for a fourth consecutive year in 2018. Trans women of colour were especially targeted for violent hate crimes. Many states failed to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their laws providing enhanced penalties for crimes including a hate motive.

There were no federal protections against discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The Administration sought through policy and the courts to dismantle protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation in education, the military, employment and other areas of the federal government.


The US government conducted an unlawful and politically motivated campaign of intimidation, threats, harassment and criminal investigations against dozens of people who defended the human rights of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers on the US-Mexico border, violating their right to freedom from discrimination based on political or other opinion. The US Department of Homeland Security and the US Department of Justice misused the criminal justice system to deter and punish those documenting or challenging systematic human rights violations by US authorities against migrants and asylum-seekers.[6]

In July, federal prosecutors announced that Dr. Scott Warren, a geography lecturer and humanitarian volunteer with the NGO No More Deaths, would face a retrial on two charges of “human smuggling” for providing people with humanitarian aid in the form of food, water, clean clothing and bedding in the desert town of Ajo, Arizona, where he lives. The retrial followed an earlier trial in June which resulted in a hung jury. If convicted, Dr. Warren could have faced up to 10 years in prison.[7] In November, a jury found Dr. Warren to be “not guilty” on both charges. In a separate case, a judge found Dr. Warren to be not guilty of several misdemeanour charges against him for leaving water and humanitarian aid in the desert for migrants.


In September, President Trump sought to reveal the identity of a whistleblower in a US intelligence agency after an anonymous report of abuse of power by the President. He also suggested that such whistleblowers constitute “spies and treason” and should be executed.

In May, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was charged with 17 new counts under the Espionage Act by the US authorities, who continued to lobby for his extradition from the UK to face criminal prosecution in the USA. The charges against Julian Assange relate to the kinds of conduct that investigative journalists regularly undertake, risking a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression.


Forty individuals remained arbitrarily and indefinitely detained by the US military in the detention facility at the US Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in violation of international law. Only one person had been transferred out of the facility since the transfer in January 2017 of 18 individuals to countries willing to accept them. Five prisoners cleared for transfer from Guantánamo since at least 2016 remained detained at the end of 2019 and the Trump administration eliminated the system that was previously created to arrange for their transfer. None of the remaining 40 men had access to adequate medical treatment and those who survived torture by US agents were not given adequate rehabilitative services.

Trials by military commission

Seven of those held in Guantánamo faced trial by military commission. The trial of civilians by military tribunals is inconsistent with international law and standards. Furthermore, applying inferior trial protections on the basis of nationality – US nationals cannot be tried by military commissions – violates the right to equality before the law. Those facing trial by military commission could face the death penalty if convicted. The use of capital punishment in these cases, after proceedings that do not meet international standards for a fair trial, would constitute arbitrary deprivation of life. The trial of those accused of crimes related to the 11 September 2001 attacks was scheduled to begin on 11 January 2021.

Civilian casualties and potentially unlawful killings

Under its flawed “global war” doctrine, the USA repeatedly resorted to lethal force in countries around the world, including using armed drones, in violation of its obligations under international human rights law and, where applicable, international humanitarian law. NGOs, UN experts and the news media documented how such strikes inside and outside of zones of active armed conflict arbitrarily deprived protected individuals, including civilians, of their right to life and may have resulted in unlawful killings and injuries, in some cases constituting war crimes.

The weakening by the US government of protections for civilians during lethal operations increased the likelihood of unlawful killings, impeded the assessment of the legality of strikes and prevented accountability and access to justice and effective remedies for victims of unlawful killings and civilian harm. For instance, despite the tripling of airstrikes in Somalia in 2018, the US government claimed that no civilians had been killed or injured. It only admitted to having caused such casualties in April 2019, following the publication of an Amnesty International report setting out irrefutable evidence of such killings.[8] Despite calls by UN human rights experts and others for clarifications of the legal and policy standards and criteria the USA applies when using lethal force outside of the USA, the government continued to be neither transparent nor forthcoming.[9]


A decade after dozens of detainees were held in a CIA-operated secret detention programme – authorized from 2001 to 2009 – during which systematic human rights violations were committed, including enforced disappearance and torture, no person suspected of criminal responsibility had been brought to justice for these crimes and the limited investigations conducted were closed with no charges brought against anyone.


The government’s ongoing failure to protect individuals from persistent gun violence continued to deny people their human rights, including the rights to life, to security of the person and to freedom from discrimination. The USA had both the highest absolute and highest per capita rates of gun ownership in the world. Unfettered access to firearms and a lack of comprehensive gun safety laws and effective regulation of firearm acquisition, possession and use continued to perpetuate this violence.

In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, some 39,773 individuals died from gunshot injuries and a further 134,000 sustained gunshot injuries and survived. The USA lacked special programmes to provide for the specific health and rehabilitation needs of gunshot survivors, who faced numerous challenges in accessing ongoing health care, particularly mental health support and rehabilitation, due to both high cost and lack of availability, and had limited recourse to compensation.[10]

Firearm homicides continued to disproportionately impact communities of colour, particularly young black men, with African Americans comprising 58.5% of all gun homicides, but only 13% of the population; firearm homicides remained the leading cause of death for black men and boys aged 15 to 34.


Nearly 1,000 individuals were killed by law enforcement personnel using firearms in 2018, and preliminary statistics indicate an equally high number of such killings in 2019. The limited data available suggested that African Americans were disproportionately impacted by police use of lethal force, comprising 23% of those killed but only 13% of the population. The government continued to fail to track how many such deaths occur annually. The 2014 Death in Custody Reporting Act, which would require the collection and dissemination of such data nationally, had not been fully implemented.

An Amnesty International review of state laws – where they exist – governing the use of lethal force by law enforcement officials found that none comply with international law and standards regarding the use of lethal force, which require that lethal force be used only as a last resort against an imminent threat of death or serious injury.


While individual states continued to move towards abolition, in 2019 the US Attorney General set five federal executions following a 16-year hiatus.

Since judicial killing resumed in the USA under revised statutes in 1977, more than 1,500 people have been executed, over 100 of them since 2015. Studies demonstrate that race, particularly of the murder victim, plays a role in who is sentenced to death.

At least 156 prisoners have been released from death row since 1977 on grounds of innocence – more than half of them ethnic minorities. In numerous cases, prisoners have gone to their deaths despite serious doubts about the proceedings that led to their convictions, including the lack of adequate legal representation. People with serious mental and intellectual disabilities continued to be subjected to the death penalty in violation of international law.

[1] Middle East: ‘The mountain is in front of us and the sea is behind us’: The impact of US policies on refugees in Lebanon and Jordan (MDE 02/0538/2019)

[2] USA: ‘You Don’t Have Any Rights Here’: Illegal Pushbacks, Arbitrary Detention, and Ill-treatment of Asylum-Seekers in the United States (AMR 51/9280/2018)

[3] USA: Government must stop illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers to Mexico (News story, 11 April)

[4] USA: No home for children: The Homestead ‘temporary emergency’ facility (AMR 51/0714/2019)

[5] USA: Trump’s Global Gag Rule a Blow for Women’s Rights and Lives (News story, 5 January)

[6] USA: ‘Saving lives is not a crime’: Politically motivated legal harassment against migrant human rights defenders by the USA (AMR 51/0583/2019)

[7] USA: Dr. Scott Warren new trial slated for November (AMR 51/0688/2019)

[8] Somalia: The hidden US war in Somalia: civilian casualties from airstrikes in Lower Shabelle (AFR 52/9952/2019).

[9] War in Raqqa: Rhetoric versus Reality (2019)

[10] USA: Scars of survival: Gun violence and barriers to reparations in the USA (AMR 51/0566/2019)