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Migration & Refugees

U.S. Reaction to New Immigrant Influx Could Violate International Law

A child holds a sign at a rally for immigration reform. Credit: Progress Ohio/cc by 2.0

WASHINGTON, Jun 29 2014 (IPS) - Rights advocates and lawmakers are expressing increased concern over the United States’ handling of the sudden influx of tens of thousands of undocumented child and female migrants from Central America.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced that military bases would be converted to detention centres to house the nearly 50,000 unaccompanied minors that have arrived at the southern U.S. border in recent months. Recent data says some 3,000 are being apprehended daily, though the reasons for their arrival remain debated.

Meanwhile, sentiment is building against the plan, with some suggesting the detention centres could violate international rights obligations.

“We’re very disturbed to hear that the Obama administration plans to open more family detention centre spots, starting with a large facility in New Mexico,” Clara Long of Human Rights Watch, a watchdog group, told IPS.

“There’s evidence that detaining children causes severe and sometimes lasting harm, including depression, anxiety and cognitive damage. That’s why detaining children for their immigration status is banned under international law.”

Friday morning the Artesia Detention Centre in New Mexico began housing families, mostly women with children, with plans to deport them within two weeks.

In 2009, fewer than 20,000 minors were apprehended in the United States on immigration charges. Yet between October 2013 and May, there have been more than 47,000 apprehensions, more than a 50 percent increase.

Following the marked increase of children with refugee concerns, the United Nations has interviewed more than 400 children on their experiences in their home countries. Nearly 60 percent reportedly meet the requirements for international protection, in what the U.N. called a conservative estimate.

“We heard stories of children watching classmates tortured, dismembered, threats against girls,” Leslie Velez, of the U.N. Refugee Agency, told reporters last week. “This wasn’t just about gangs but criminal armed groups, drug trafficking, cartels, transnational criminal organisations – all operating with greater and greater impunity.”

Detention as deterrence

When a child is apprehended by border patrol, they are typically held at a border patrol station and, within 72 hours, are moved to a federal resettlement office. From there, some 90 percent are released to a sponsor in the U.S., usually a family member, and then must appear before court.

The recent influx, however, means that many kids are now staying at border control offices for more than the 72-hour limit, according to the Inter-American Commission for Human rights (IACHR). Over 100 reports of physical, verbal and sexual abuse by agents towards children have also been filed in a complaint by NGOs against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We understand that we need to get people away from the border and process them, so we don’t necessarily object to a short-term facility,” Michelle Brane, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, an advocacy group, told IPS.

“But there’s a lot of talk about ‘stopping the flow,’ to use detention as a deterrence, which we are against … Stopping people’s access to asylum is not in compliance with international refugee law.”

Brane notes that the United States regularly asks countries around the world to uphold international protection standards, with Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan currently accepting millions of Syrian refugees into their much smaller countries. “The numbers here are small in comparison,” she says.

In 2006, Brane visited a family detention centre where she found children who were losing weight, were stressed and could not go outside.

“When we asked children and mothers how they were doing, they broke down … there is no humane way to lock babies in,” she says.

Brane describes community alternatives to detention centres that she calls cheaper and more efficient. Under such programmes, she says, undocumented migrants report to court 96 percent of the time.

Others say that conditions today are not as bad.

“It’s definitely a place where everyone going through feels that it’s not an ideal place for children. But are children’s basic needs being taken care of? Yes, they are,” Juanita Molina, executive director of Border Action Network, a rights group, told IPS about her recent visit to a detention centre in Arizona.

Molina said that many government officials were doing their best to treat the children well, with some facilities now having toys. But she warns that the lack of facilities and staff can defeat even the best-intended workers.

“The federal government needs to reframe how they look at this,” she says, “not as a detention crisis, but as a humanitarian and refugee crisis.”

Both Molina and Brane both voice concerns over the speed with which the government is able to process cases.On Friday, the Obama administration announced it would process cases at Artesia within 10 to 15 days.

“The lack of due process feels irresponsible,” Molina says. “It’s possible that it’s lawful, but it’s not moral.”

Root causes

Meanwhile, immigration specialists argue that the root cause of the issue is violence in Central America – not lenient U.S. immigration policies, as many conservative lawmakers here are claiming.

“This child migration is not a result of failed border security,” Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank here, told IPS.

“It is the result of profound push factors in Central America – violence, instability and lack of economic opportunity – coupled with the consequences, sometimes unintended, of humane, well-meaning U.S. laws, policies and court rulings … and increasingly sophisticated human smuggling networks that have telegraphed to Central Americans that their children can enter the U.S.”

To address violence in Central America, Vice-President Joe Biden announced from Guatemala last week some 254 million dollars in related aid.

“The Obama administration’s response, thus far, hits on some of the immediate and longer-term responses necessary to deal with this significantly increased flow,” Mittelstadt says.

“The various forms of assistance for Central America represent a recognition of the deep factors in the region that are responsible for part of the flow, including endemic poverty, lack of economic opportunity and gang violence.”

Yet she notes that it remains unclear whether the new assistance represents a one-time commitment or a longer-standing pledge.

Also unclear is the effect this crisis will have on legislative attempts to overhaul the United States’ immigration policies.

“I think this crisis underscores the dire need for comprehensive immigration reform,” Human Rights Watch’s Long says.

“Immigration reform would simultaneously address ongoing rights abuses in the immigration system, including family separation and communities living in fear. It would also provide certainty about the law and who is or who is not eligible for legal status.”

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  • Marysue5252

    Much of the misery around the world is caused by greedy, rapacious corporate men from every country. They need to be curtailed by any means possible. Greed must be declared a crime. People ought to be able to live in peace and harmony in their own countries, without overpopulating themselves beyond the land’s ability to provide. The thing is, we cannot keep taking in the world’s overflow. Birth control has to start over there. We’re already doing that here. The last thing we need is another misogynist tyrant coming over here with their “women are inferior” attitudes, insisting their wives must have many kids, all of them boys. Such attitudes is what caused their own countries of origin to become such living hells, which made them want to come here.
    Men who want to keep their misogyny can go back to the hellholes they came from! We’ll keep their wives and kids here, as long as they behave and actually become real Canadians, with respect for First Nations, women, our land, our waterways, sharing with and caring for all critters, etc.

  • suq_dis

    I think that greed should be declared immoral, I doubt you could get it to be declared a crime.
    However, I noticed you didn’t include women in your list of those afflicted by greed. I’m sure this must have been a simple oversight.
    But the real message I got from your post is that you have a dislike for men.
    It must be hard for you to have to deal with hating half the world’s population.

  • Marysue5252

    It’s not that I dislike men, of course, but I object to their pushy behaviour, along with their marked taste for brutal sports–or, rather, sports played brutally– and sense of “entitlement”., just because they have more muscles and are bigger than women. Not all men are pugnacious gladiators, of course, but too many of them are violent voyeurs–wanting their team to win, no matter how they win., I used to play hockey and I wasn’t dainty about it, but I got more joy out of deaking around someone than smashing up against them. Of course, I’m only 5 feet tall…so it hurt when I accidentally hit someone or they hit me–even with all the gear on;)))

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