UN conference tackles racism against migrants

International meeting in South Africa this week looks at curbing hate crimes.

When two Mexicans climbed aboard Christopher Slavin's pickup truck at dawn last September, they could not see the white-power tattoos that decorate Mr. Slavin's upper body. And in their faltering English, they could not determine their destination. To Israel Perez Arvizu and Magdaleno Estrada Escamilla, all that mattered was that they found work for the day.

Less than an hour later, the two were back on the Long Island Expressway, this time bloody and desperate for a ride to the hospital.

Mr. Perez and Mr. Estrada were illegal immigrants, colliding head-on with one of the oldest and most blatant forms of racism: hate crime. Last month, a New York jury convicted Slavin of attempted murder.

The treatment of migrants is one of the topics of discussion at this week's UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Unlike Mr. Slavin's actions, most anti-immigrant sentiments tend to be more subtle - and thus more difficult to tag as racist.

But the issue - in both subtle and flagrant forms - is coming to the fore as industrial nations with aging populations find themselves increasingly dependent on cheap, migrant labor. According to the International Organization for Migration, the estimated 150 million migrants worldwide are often unfairly blamed for domestic problems societies face, including rates of unemployment, crime, and drug use.

Those perceptions lie at the root of growing hate crimes, whether they be against Iraqi Kurds in Germany or Korean workers in Japan, notes a recent Amnesty International report on racism. The United States, in particular, is under heavy attack. The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, a concerned group of more than 200 community, labor, and civil rights organizations, released a report in August saying that hate crimes against immigrants are on the rise.

The report, being presented at workshops in Durban, also criticizes the Immigration and Naturalization Service for practicing racial profiling along the US-Mexican border, stopping people based strictly on race.

But INS spokesperson Bill Strassburger says many factors apply, and that skin color is not the criteria used to distinguish immigrants from Americans.

"While it's quite clear that lots of people in the US are very anxious about immigrants and immigration, I don't see most of that as racism," says Peter Skerry, an expert on US immigration policy at the Brookings Institution. "Our immigration policy and its fairness to people and its lack of discrimination are the overriding characteristics. The melting pot is alive and well."

But migrants say the roots of racism are deep, ingrained in through generations of practices and attitudes that result in below average pay, job discrimination, and US professional standards that, in some cases, seem designed to keep migrants from working the US.

"It's institutionalized racism," says Amy Velez, a Colombian nurse who came to the US illegally in 1980 after being kidnapped and tortured for three months by the Colombian army in her hometown of Cali. Ms. Velez says that she was wrongly accused of being tied to leftist guerrillas, and fears for her life if she returns.

But in the US, Velez couldn't get work as a nurse. She had to clean houses until she could afford to take classes to get the proper certification. "It is painful for me to live in this country," says Velez, who is in Durban this week representing the Center for Immigrant Families.

The UN conference is looking in particular at the treatment of migrants at work. The International Labor Organization estimates that up to 80 million migrants, more than half the total worldwide, are seeking work. "Racism, xenophobia, and discrimination lead to unequal access to services, employment, and other opportunities. It is accentuated in the poorer sections of migrant populations and those most vulnerable to economic exploitation," says Gabriela Rodriguez Pizarro, UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

In addition to highlighting the positive contributions of migrants, UN organizers are calling for better access to employment, vocational training, contracts, and unions. They also say all nations should review and, where necessary, revise immigration policies so that they are free of racial discrimination. Thus far, UN officials have shied away from citing specific examples of racism in any region.

Craig Nelson, director of the anti-immigration group, Project USA, says his concern is that immigration propels the problems that come with overpopulation, and thus anti-immigrant sentiments are not necessarily racist. "The vast majority of Americans are not racist, and the important consequences of today's immigration levels are unconnected to race," Nelson says. The sticking point, he warns, is the environment.

Ron Bird, chief economist of the Employment Policy Foundation, says Americans should be more welcoming to a population that helps the economy to grow. The tricky part of reaching equality between migrants and natives, he suggests, will be to match the skills of new arrivals with the specific demands of the job market. Recent arrivals, who have professional training from abroad, are taking jobs that are below that level of work, Bird notes. "The licensure and certification systems create delays and barriers. Is it racism? I don't know, but I'm sure we can improve that system's performance."

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