Family Detention: 5 Facts, 5 Asks

By Anashua Dutta, Assistant Campaigner

You have probably seen the images of children ripped from their parents’ arms at the southern border and heard their heart-wrenching cries for their mothers and fathers. This administration’s “solution” to the humanitarian crisis of their own making is no better — the threat of mandatory and prolonged detention of families. Families seeking asylum were already being detained, and now this administration is threatening to escalate another cruel policy into a mass practice. At the same time, thousands of children remain separated from their parents, and the U.S. continues to shirk its obligations to protect those seeking refuge.

1. What happened to the families who were separated?

Thousands of families were separated under the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy of criminally prosecuting adults crossing the border between ports of entry. Kids were forcibly separated from their parents, who were charged with the crime of entering the country without permission. Prosecuting asylum-seekers for crossing the U.S. border irregularly violates U.S. human rights obligations.

President Trump’s June 20th executive order did not end the policy of family separation, let alone its “zero tolerance” policy. Instead, it simply ordered that in lieu of family separation, families be detained together while their asylum claims are processed.

Although a federal court has ordered the administration to reunite the more than 2,600 forcibly detained families, more than 1,400 remain separated. As the court-ordered date of July 26th looms for reunification of families, the government is struggling to match parents and their separated children. Many parents don’t know where their children are, and now they know the government doesn’t either. The administration has also left open the possibility that the U.S. will return to its family separation policy, a practice U.S. authorities were implementing arbitrarily since fall 2016.

The impact of family separation and detention is both immediate and lifelong. In one instance out of far too many like it, a father and his 6-year old son came to the U.S. from Guatemala to seek asylum. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took the boy from his father, who then had to suffer for 25 days without hearing from son or even knowing his whereabouts. When he finally managed to contact his son, he heard his child crying on the other end of the line, asking why his father abandoned him and did not love him. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the trauma of family separation can inflict irreparable harm on children. Children in detention for more than two-weeks are more prone to depressive behaviors and substance abuse, and those who have been separated from their parents will be more vulnerable to suffering from heart disease, obesity, and arthritis later on in their lifetimes.

2. Is this even legal?

International human rights standards contain a strong presumption against the detention of asylum-seekers and migrants. Detention should be used only as a measure of last resort; it must be justified in each individual case; and subject to judicial review.

Detention is never in the best interest of a child. When children are detained, it should be in the least restrictive environment and for the shortest period of time necessary, only following an individualized assessment and judicial review, and adhering to the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement.

In February 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture declared that “detention based solely on migration status can amount to torture.”

At heart, family detention is an unnecessary and punitive system that violates U.S. obligations under refugee and human rights law as well as the its long-standing, bi-partisan tradition of offering refuge to people seeking asylum. Family detention is also not proven to deter families seeking asylum.

The bottom line? Seeking asylum is not a crime: families seeking protection in the U.S. should not be living behind bars.

3. Why is the U.S. separating and detaining families?

These policies are intended to deter families from seeking asylum in the U.S. While family separation was occurring long before the announcement of the zero-tolerance policy, separations surged under the Trump administration. Parents seeking asylum with their children in the U.S. encounter a terrible choice: stay in their home countries under the constant risk of violence and persecution or travel to the U.S. and face the reality that their children might be taken from them. Despite the June 20th executive order, the practice of family separation persists.

To be clear, family detention is not an acceptable alternative to family separation. Those seeking asylum in our country should not be locked up. Detention also prevents individuals from easily accessing legal representation, contacting family members, and obtaining the documents they need to develop their applications for asylum.

Parents and children should be kept together, and be released together into the community to pursue their claims for asylum in a fair and humane process. The administration has failed to consider alternatives to detention that mitigate the risk of harm to children and their families.

4. What does the rest of the world think?

The world is watching in horror. Zeid Ra’ed al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, called the practice of family separation “unconscionable.” Through Amnesty International’s Human Rights Education program, children from Argentina, Burkina Faso, India, Kenya, Senegal, Thailand, Togo, and Venezuela wrote letters to children who had been detained and separated from their parents by U.S. authorities. In their letters, they expressed solidarity, resistance, and hope:

“Don’t give up. We will be beside you no matter what happens.”

“We are not animals.”

“I am a child, respect my rights.”

5. What can I do?

We must let this administration know, loud and clear, that we will not rest until families are reunited, family detention is ended, and those in power are held accountable for their inhumanity.

a. Keep the pressure on this administration by signing AIUSA’s petition here to tell the U.S. and President Trump to stop punishing families seeking asylum.

b. Raise your voice at the #FamiliesBelongTogether rally in Washington D.C. on Thursday, July 26th. The Trump administration has been court-ordered to return all children to their parents by this date. If you can’t make it to DC, there are also actions taking place nationwide on Saturday, July 28th.

c. Write an op-ed in your local paper calling on the administration to reunite parents with their children and end the practice of family detention.

d. Call and/or write to your member of Congress and demand that they hold the administration accountable for its actions. If you are able to, meet with your member of Congress in person. Many of your representatives will be in their in-district offices over the summer. Demonstrate that you and your community will not allow them to be complacent in the wake of this shameful policy.

e. Organize actions in July and August in your own community to keep public pressure on the administration. We must show this administration that the public will not stand for the separation or detention of families for seeking safety here.

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