WORLD REPORT 1997 - United States

Human Rights Developments

Human Rights Watch continued to focus on immigration practices, police abuse, detainees= and prisoners= rights, the death penalty, and issues of discrimination in the United States. During 1996, through new legislation and the persistence of established abusive practices, U.S. authorities at federal and state levels undermined the rights of vulnerable groups, making the year a disturbing one for human rights. The fact that the U.S. hosted the XXVI Olympics in July, and presented itself aggressively as a leader in human rights and democracy through the vehicle of the Games, underscored yet again the importance of pressing the U.S. government to accept the full authority of international human rights standards; Human Rights Watch issued a report focusing on the Olympic venues of Atlanta and the state of Georgia with this goal in mind.


Throughout the year, politically popular proposals made by Congress and the White House contributed to the accelerated erosion of basic due process and human rights protections in the United States. Despite his public proclamations in support of civil and human rights, President Bill Clinton displayed a startling lack of will to preserve rights under attack, and in some cases took the lead in eliminating human rights protections. Among the seriously flawed bills passed and signed into law were provisions to limit habeas corpus appeals, undermine prisoners= rights to bring lawsuits to address inhumane custodial conditions or treatment, and inhibit the ability of individuals fleeing persecution to seek asylum in the U.S. or challenge decisions about their immigration status. The new laws, all of which were opposed by Human Rights Watch, quickly led to court challenges that were pending as of this writing.

In April, President Clinton signed into law the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which, among other objectionable provisions, allowed the use of secret evidence to deport legally admitted immigrants and imposed unprecedented restrictions on habeas corpus appeals for all defendants. The new law limits federal court review of state court convictions except in cases where the previous state court decision was Aunreasonable.@ The new restrictions were imposed despite the fact that 40 percent of state cases carrying the death penalty, when reviewed in federal courts, have been found to contain harmful constitutional errors and have been overturned. The constitutionality of the new law was immediately challenged in court.

The effect of the new restrictions was particularly dramatic in death penalty cases because the new law=s rigid time limits would deter lawyers from taking on complex capital cases. Coupled with the elimination of federal support for legal programs that provided representation for persons facing the death penalty, the new law left many death row prisoners without essential legal advice. Civil liberties organizations and Human Rights Watch had reported on innumerable examples of poor representation in capital cases that had led to death sentences; new restrictions on habeas corpus appeals, coupled with funding cuts for legal assistance, further endangered these defendants' lives.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act, which became law in April 1996, made it more difficult to initiate a lawsuit to improve treatment of inmates, or to monitor court orders to improve conditions stemming from such lawsuits. This, despite the fact that lawsuits have historically been the only reliably effective way to improve deplorable custodial conditions and abusive treatment. The bill=s backers in Congress explained that they were merely attempting to curtail frivolous lawsuits, ignoring prisoners= rights advocates and other experts who cautioned that the new law was overly broad and would certainly result in serious abuses going undetected and uncorrected. In July, Human Rights Watch joined prisoners= rights groups in challenging the constitutionality of some provisions of the PLRA in the case of Plyler v. Moore in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit; the case was pending at this writing.

In September, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. In correspondence, Human Rights Watch warned legislators and President Clinton that these provisions prevent asylum seekers from exercising their internationally protected right to seek and enjoy asylum and undermine the prohibition on the expulsion or return (refoulement) of refugees as set out in international human rights treaties and U.S. law regarding treatment of asylum seekers.

Among other objectionable sections, the legislation contained new summary exclusion procedures that allow immigration officers to decide, on the spot, whether a person arriving at a port of entry without proper documentation has a credible asylum claim. If the asylum claim is not found credible by the officer, an administrative appeal is available C presuming the individual knows to appeal without benefit of legal counsel. The new law is based on the flawed presumption that those entering the U.S. without documentation, or with fraudulent papers, do not have legitimate asylum claims. In fact, individuals fleeing persecution often have no opportunity, or ability, to obtain proper documentation.

Human Rights Watch also opposed the legislation=s unreasonable and arbitrary deadlines on asylum applications. Once the bill became law, individuals seeking asylum in the U.S. were required to file an application within one year of arrival. Human Rights Watch has long contended that the many obstacles to filing an asylum claim often prevent asylum seekers with legitimate claims from filing in a timely manner, and that their failure to meet arbitrary deadlines should not affect their cases.

In one of the most far-reaching provisions of the new law, the historic role of the federal courts in reviewing Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) decisions was severely restricted. One section of the new law effectively bars class-action lawsuits against the INS, thus eliminating a crucial check on a notoriously mismanaged agency. Just after the bill was signed into law, Attorney General Janet Reno reportedly filed motions to dismiss four of five class-action suits brought by hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who claim they were wrongfully disqualified from the government=s 1980s amnesty program.

Immigration Policy and Practice