Immigrant Rights

Freedom of movement is one of the most basic human rights. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) stipulates:

Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.

While states have the right to regulate the entry and stay of non-nationals in their territory, they can only do so within the limits of their human rights obligations. The USA like all government must ensure that its laws, policies, and practices do not lead to abuse of immigrants’ human rights.

The right to free movement, or the denial of it, within national and international borders can have profound effects upon other basic human rights also outlined in the UDHR and other treaties. Without the right to leave one’s home, a person may be politically repressed, prevented from observing his or her chosen religion, prevented from enjoying the basic right to marriage or family life, or blocked from a job or an education that ultimately could enhance his or her quality of life. Thus, while free movement may seem on the surface to be a fairly minor and obvious human right, it actually is one of the most basic rights that in many nations around the world, when violated, causes great suffering.

Defining Terms

There are distinct and important differences between an immigrant, a migrant, and a refugee:

  • An immigrant is someone who comes to a new country with the intention of becoming a permanent resident.

Some immigrants may wish to become naturalized, that is to become a citizen of the new country. Others may remain resident aliens, non-citizens who live permanently in a country.

An illegal alien is someone who lives in a new country unlawfully or without official permission.

  • United Nations human rights documents define migrants as “Persons who live temporarily or permanently in a country of which they are not nationals.” Migrants leave one place for another in search of a decent living or better education, to flee persecution, or simply to be close to family or friends.

The term economic migrants refers to those who have left their homes not in fear of persecution but in search of a higher standard of living, which would bring increased job and educational opportunities. Most economic migrants move from poorer to more prosperous countries, often sending home money to support their families in the home country.

  • Unlike immigrants and migrants who freely decide to migrate, refugees or asylum seekers, are forced to flee to leave their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution. They usually cannot return to the home country, either temporarily or permanently. Refugees are entitled to special protection under international law.

Immigration Push-Pull Factors

Immigration is on the rise. In 2005, the United Nations reported that there were nearly 191 million international migrants worldwide, about 3 percent of the world population. This represented a rise of 26 million since 1990. A 2012 survey by Gallup found roughly 640 million adults would want to migrate to another country if they had the chance.

“Push factors” refer to the conditions that make people leave their home countries. These are usually economic reasons such as poverty, low wages, and lack of jobs. However, violence, war, hunger, disease, and discrimination of all kinds, including ethnic cleansing and genocide, can motivate people to leave.

“Pull factors” are those that attract people to a new country. Again the principal reasons are economic: job opportunities and higher wages. Educational opportunities are another major reason for immigration.

Immigration Rights

All people, regardless of their status, retain their universal human rights no matter where in the world they may be. While international law permits states to establish immigration policies and deportation procedures, it does not grant them discretion to violate human rights in the process. According to Human Rights Watch,[1] the United States regularly fails to uphold international human rights law in its immigration laws and enforcement policies, by violating the rights of immigrants to fair treatment at the hands of government. Such policies violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political (ICCPR, 1966) and the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention, 1951), treaties to which the United States is party. 

Related Human Rights Instruments

[1] Torn Apart: Families and US Immigration Reform, Human rights Watch, July 2014.