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Letter from Human Rights Watch to President Biden, President López Obrador, and Prime Minister Trudeau

New York City, November 17, 2021

Joseph Biden
President of the United States

Andrés Manuel López Obrador
President of Mexico

Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister of Canada

Dear North American leaders,

I write on behalf of Human Rights Watch in advance of the ninth North American Leaders’ Summit in Washington, DC, to be held on November 18th, to express concern regarding your policies on some of the issues to be discussed at the summit. These include regional responses to migration, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

We urge you to jointly commit to respecting the rights of migrants and asylum seekers and working together to tackle the climate crisis.

Below, I outline our concerns and recommendations in detail.

Immigration and the Right to Seek Asylum

Under Presidents Biden and López Obrador, the United States and Mexico have committed serious, systemic, and ongoing violations of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.

The Biden administration has continued the longstanding US policy of leaning heavily on Mexico to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from reaching the US border. Mexico has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers, National Guard members, and immigration agents at borders and checkpoints across the country. They have kicked and beaten migrants, separated families, broken into private homes in search of migrants, and assaulted journalists, activists, and representatives of Mexico’s human rights commission who were attempting to document abuses. On two occasions, they shot and killed migrants who failed to stop at checkpoints.

The US and Mexico have also taken unprecedented steps to increase summary expulsions of asylum seekers without allowing them to seek protection – a violation of US, Mexican, and international law. In Biden’s first nine months in office, his administration expelled migrants more than 800,000 times without allowing them to seek protection, nearly twice as many times as the Trump administration did in its final 11 months in office. Many asylum seekers are transferred to the custody of Mexican immigration authorities, who expel them to Central America, sometimes abandoning them near a remote border crossing. The US and Mexico have also expelled thousands of people to Haiti, which is in the midst of a crisis that has left it unable to meet the basic needs of its people. Returning migrants to a place where their lives are threatened is a violation of international human rights law.

The US and Mexico have also subjected migrants and asylum seekers to human rights abuses while in custody. In September, we obtained evidence of over 160 cases of misconduct and abuse against asylum seekers reported by US Department of Homeland Security officials about the conduct of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Border Patrol officials, including reports of assault, sexual abuse, denial of medical care, and attempts to prevent asylum seekers from lodging claims. In August, we spoke with asylum seekers who told us that Mexican immigration agents had tried to prevent them from lodging asylum claims. In both countries, detained migrants have complained of crowded and unsanitary conditions and a lack of measures to prevent the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, even as the Biden administration uses the pandemic as a pretext to summarily expel asylum seekers.  

Meanwhile, although Canada prides itself on being a refugee-welcoming and rights-respecting country, the Trudeau government incarcerates thousands of migrants and asylum seekers every year, including in maximum-security provincial jails. Immigration detainees are regularly handcuffed, shackled, and may be subjected to solitary confinement. With no set release date, detainees can be held for months or years. Immigration detainees with psychosocial disabilities face discrimination throughout the process.

We urge you to use the North American Leaders Summit to jointly commit to ending abuses against migrants and asylum seekers, halting summary deportations, prioritizing safe and legal routes for migration, and ensuring that everyone arriving in North America who is fleeing from violence and persecution has access to protection.

Climate Change

The climate crisis is a human rights crisis. Across the world, extreme heat, drought, flooding, forest fires, hurricanes, and rising sea levels are already undermining food security, threatening to drive hundreds of millions of people from their homes, and contributing to conflicts over increasingly scarce resources.

Canada, Mexico, and the United States are contributing to the crisis as three of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters (the United States is the second highest emitter globally; Canada and Mexico are among the top fifteen). Your governments have a human rights obligation to protect people from the foreseeable harms caused by the climate crisis and to avert its most catastrophic impacts by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We urge you to commit to meeting this obligation by working together to hasten the transition in North America from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy sources.

Since taking office in January, President Biden has identified climate change as one of his key priorities domestically and internationally. He returned the United States to the Paris Agreement, hosted a global climate summit in April, and has promoted legislation that would advance the transition to clean energies in the United States. At the same time, however, his administration has continued to back expanded fossil fuel extraction and new oil and gas infrastructure.

President López Obrador has spoken out against wind and solar energy. He is pushing through legal and policy changes that could quash Mexico’s precarious renewable energy sector. And he is pouring billions of dollars into reviving coal, oil, and gas power generation in Mexico, including re-activating coal power plants that were set to be closed.

Prime Minister Trudeau has stated that climate change is one of his top priorities but, under his leadership, Canada is not on track to meet its inadequate emissions reduction target and is the largest per-capita public financer of fossil fuels among G20 countries. While Canada has committed to ending international public financing of fossil fuels by 2022, this pledge does not address the billions more that Canada provides in domestic public finance, or fossil fuel subsidies.

Canada, Mexico, and the United States made important declarations at COP26, including ending forest loss by 2030 and slashing global methane emissions. Canada and the United States also submitted improved Nationally Determined Contributions (Mexico, regrettably, did not). These steps remain insufficient, however.

We urge you to use the North American Leaders Summit to begin bridging the gap between your current pledges and the action needed to deliver on the Paris Agreement goal of holding the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Specifically, we urge you to commit not to engage in new fossil fuel exploration, production, or infrastructure development projects; to end financial support for fossil fuels at home as well as abroad; and to conduct a timely and transparent phase out of fossil fuel subsidies. Furthermore, we urge you to commit to creating regulatory frameworks that ensure that clean energy projects are rights respecting, including by ensuring responsible sourcing of minerals for renewable energy technologies.

Covid-19 Response

President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau should also take this opportunity to encourage President López Obrador to take the science behind the Covid-19 pandemic more seriously in order to save lives. Much like former US President Donald Trump, President López Obrador has been a source of misinformation about the virus, downplaying its risks, refusing to wear a mask, and holding public events at the height of the pandemic. Under his leadership, Mexico has seen one of the highest recorded Covid-19 death tolls in the world.

We call on you to center human rights in regional cooperation in North America. We hope that this letter can serve as a resource for a constructive dialogue at Thursday’s Summit. I remain at your disposal to discuss our concerns or provide further information on our recommendations.

Yours sincerely,

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

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