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Taking the US to task on human rights

Human rights abuses.

For most Americans, those words probably steer the mind to distant points on the map: the Middle East, the Sudan, China. But if there were a motto for the new Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College to signal its distinctiveness, it might be: Americans, heal yourselves.

The center formally launched last week with a series of media interviews and a speech by former Irish president Mary Robinson. Its initiatives include studying ways to help the world's estimated 35 million refugees and to exhume and rebury victims of wars. But the most unusual project is to put US deportation policy under the microscope, and under the heading of human rights abuse.

The country deports about 200,000 people a year, says Daniel Kanstroom, a professor at BC's law school and one of the new center's founders. You might think, in this era of terrorism, that many get the boot as security risks. Actually, few are, says Kanstroom. About a quarter have broken the law, but most have committed relatively minor offenses. A person given a one-year suspended sentence for shoplifting is ''treated exactly the same under the law right now as rape and murder," he says.

The problem, he says, stems from laws signed by President Bill Clinton after the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing -- carried out by a homegrown terrorist -- that curtail judicial review in certain deportation cases. ''In effect, what our country is doing is cleansing the population of wrongdoers and shipping them back for the most part to Mexico and Central America, where they create even deeper social problems," Kanstroom says.

If a focus on US deportation policy is unusual, so is BC's approach. A Jesuit theologian, the Rev. David Hollenbach, directs the new center. ''Most of the human rights centers that are around universities in the United States today tend to be focused in law schools and political science departments," says Hollenbach. ''But we also have community social psychology, we have theology and ethics."

In an interview before her speech, Robinson, herself an attorney, said, ''If you have a narrow, lawyer-, law-based center, the tendency would be to focus almost exclusively on civil and political rights."

But many asylum seekers are not political refugees fleeing oppression, said the former United Nations high commissioner for human rights. ''They're just desperate to get out of the extreme poverty they're in," she said. ''There's an overuse of the refugee-asylum route, and that again tends to prejudice [authorities against] genuine refugees and asylum seekers."

The nexus between religion and human rights is complicated. On the one hand, religious fanaticism is to blame for some of the world's atrocities; on the other hand, faith-based activists are key players in the battle against suffering. To cite just one case, evangelical Christians have been leaning hard on President Bush to stop the slaughter of black Africans in the Sudan.

''There are both negatives and positives about the role of religion in relationship to human rights today," says Hollenbach. Communication between religious communities -- something the center plans to foster -- is crucial in advancing human rights, he says.

The non-Catholics among the center's faculty are comfortable. ''I'm not Catholic, and I'm not a theologian," says political scientist Donald L. Hafner, one of the center's directors. ''But in the decades that I've been here at Boston College, one of the things I have found so rewarding and intriguing about this place . . . is that it is so open-minded and ecumenical."

Robinson welcomed BC's interest in American policy and in deportations. ''Until very recently, the human rights community was not particularly concerned about migrants," she says. ''They'd say . . . what's the human rights connection?"

She cited a recent article about how Ireland -- its people woven into the fabric of American life for generations, and itself a prosperous country now -- contributes a surprising number of undocumented immigrants to the United States, many of them with low skills preventing them from participating in the Irish boom.

''A good number of them live in Brighton," says Hollenbach, ''less than a mile" from the BC campus.

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