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U.S. reaction to new immigrant influx could violate international law

By Michelle Tullo | Last updated: Jul 9, 2014 - 11:17:41 PM

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Children detainees sleeping in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. Thousands of immigrant children crossing alone into the U.S. can live in American cities, attend public schools and possibly work here for years without consequences. Photo: AP World Wide Photo

WASHINGTON—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.

President Barack Obama recently announced that military bases would be converted to detention centers 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 centers could violate international rights obligations.

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

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“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.”

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 UN 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. “This wasn’t just about gangs but criminal armed groups, drug trafficking, cartels, transnational criminal organizations—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 groups 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.”

Ms. 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, Ms. Brane visited a family detention center 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.

Ms. Brane describes community alternatives to detention centers that she calls cheaper and more efficient. Under such programs, 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 center in Arizona.

Ms. 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 Ms. Molina and Ms. Brane both voice concerns over the speed with which the government is able to process cases. On June 28, the Obama administration announced it would process cases at Artesia within 10 to 15 days.

“The lack of due process feels irresponsible,” Ms. 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 in June some $254 million 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,” Ms. Mittelstadt says.

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.” (IPS)

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