Last week, the world said no. This week should be no different.
Detaining families is not the answer.
By Ryan Mace, Grassroots Advocacy & Refugee Specialist
Four days before Mother’s Day a team from Amnesty International went on a research mission along the U.S. Southwest border that took them to El Paso, Texas. They were there to speak with women who had been separated from their children while seeking asylum along the border.
The detention center they visited there had such difficult conditions that one of our staff recalled having to leave every 45 minutes to get fresh air. One of the women they met, “Diana”, (Diana is a pseudonym to protect her identify.) recounted her harrowing story to our researchers.
Recently, Diana had presented herself and her seven-year-old son at the El Paso port of entry, where they requested asylum after fleeing her home country. Diana was forced to leave her small town after drug traffickers had repeatedly threatened to kill her and her family because she had asked them to stop dealing drugs in-front of her house, which she understandably felt was a danger to her and her family. Police officers who observed it and did drugs with the dealers refused to do anything, and she feared that the gang or the police would target her, wherever she went. Diana, forced into a corner, made the decision to leave her home, to ensure that her child would be safe.
After a dangerous journey in search of safety, she reached the Southwest border of the U.S., arriving at the port of entry in El Paso, and there declared her desire to apply for asylum.
Instead of finding safety and welcome though, her terror continued. Diana’s son was forcibly removed from her, part of the pattern of abuses of the Trump Administration we have become all too familiar with this past month. She looked back on the moment and compared her pain to the pain she would have felt if someone was ripping her heart out of her chest.
While taking her child away, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer told her:
“You don’t have any rights here, and you don’t have any rights to stay with your son.”
Her seven-year old son was terrified as he thought the officers were planning to kill his mother. Diana did not know her son’s whereabouts for 15 days. Fifteen long days and nights came and went without any information on her child. She continues to be in detention and has not seen her son since he was removed from her in March.
Nothing short of torture
These past few weeks, the world has watched and reacted in horror to a government that would rip children from the family’s arms. Families whose only crime was a desperate search for safety. We called it what it was: nothing short of torture. Americans across the country rightfully said, this isn’t who we are.
“We would like to think, and we try to tell ourselves, this is not America, this is not us, this is not what we do, but ladies and gentlemen, at this moment, this is America, this is us, this is what we are doing” said Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) after visiting a temporary camp in El Paso that’s currently housing children separated from their parents.
After a public outcry, the Trump Administration did something it rarely does: it appeared to relent. Last Thursday, the President signed an executive order he said would end the policy of separating families. Unfortunately, this executive order does nothing to reunify already separated families, and does not end the government’s practice of family separations.
Families could still be separated. Families are still apart. Families will be detained.
Further, the Administration has instead proposed mandating the prolonged detention of asylum-seeking parents with their children while their asylum claims are adjudicated. Just this past weekend, the President took the rhetoric a step further when he said on Twitter, “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.”
Not only are the actions of this policy and this statement from the President of the United States not the America to which many of us aspire to be, if put into effect as the President describes, it would violate both U.S. and international law. It simply isn’t the way our system is set up to run. We have protections for asylum seekers at both the international and domestic level for a reason. It truly is shocking how little regard this Administration gives to the factors that force people, like Diana and her child, to flee in the first place. And it is equally shocking how quickly they dehumanize those at our borders, and quickly seek to take away their rights.
The fact is, we shouldn’t be separating families. But we shouldn’t be detaining them, either. Both family separation and family detention inflict deep, long-lasting trauma and mental suffering on children and parents alike. Both violate parents’ and children’s human rights and U.S. obligations under refugee law. Most of these families fled to the U.S. to seek international protection from persecution and violence, often when their governments are unwilling or unable to protect them. We must do everything we can to ensure protection for people who have lost everything.
And importantly, we should give them the chance to have their asylum claims heard, and not be forcibly separated from their children or thrown behind bars while doing so. There are many alternatives that are far more humane and safe. Now is the time, as Congress considers what to do in response, to tell your member of Congress that separating or detaining families is not the America you believe in.