Washington DC (OpenDemocracy) – Trump doubles down on Obama’s appalling record as his administration considers implementing a policy of detaining children in violation of their human rights.
Children have the right to freedom and dignity, and should not be separated from their parents against their will unless it is in child’s best interest. These rights, as reflected in the 1959 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which the US is not a signatory, are basic for all children, including immigrant and refugee children. Today, these rights are under threat by the Trump administration and it is our moral obligation to fight for these basic rights on behalf of mothers and children coming to the United States seeking safety.
On March 6, 2017, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, confirmed that the Department was considering a policy that would separate children from their parents at the Mexico-US border. Under this plan, mothers would be held in custody while children would initially be placed in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This policy, first considered and announced but not implemented by the Obama administration, served as a pathway for the Trump administration to intensify its agenda to dehumanise immigrants and refugees.
Since 2014, thousands of Central American women and children seeking asylum have been held in these primarily privately operated detention facilities or jails. In spite of allegations of mistreatment, poor conditions, lack of appropriate health care and endangerment of women and children in these jails, the Obama administration did not discontinue this practice. Currently, there are three jails holding immigrant families: Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania, a 90-bed facility operated by Berks County; Karnes Residential Center in Karnes, Texas, operated by the for-profit Geo Group, with a capacity of 532 beds; and South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, operated by the for-profit company CoreCivic Co, formally Correction Corporation of America, with a 2,400 bed capacity.
Only weeks after Jeff Sessions was sworn in as Trump’s Attorney General, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memo supporting the continued use of private prisons for federal detainees, including immigrants. Stock prices of these private prison companies soared when this news broke. Since the 2017 inauguration, the Trump administration has demonstrated its clear intention to crackdown on civil society, to focus its repressive force on so many, including Latinos, African Americans, Asians, Muslims, women, LGBTI communities, Native Americans, immigrants and refugees, and the poor in general. For Trump, the controversial immigrant family detention program, the largest since the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s, was a “rich inheritance” from the Obama administration.
Recent proposals point to the reality that the Trump administration continues its rapid expansion of Obama’s aggressive incarceration policies, intensifying a state of fear and uncertainty amongst documented, undocumented and dual immigration status families. The most draconian proposal is the separation of children from their mothers and/or caregivers after crossing the Mexico-US border.
There are few details about this proposal to separate children from their mothers or caregivers, but what is gleaned thus far is that mothers and caregivers will be put in immigrant detention jails (as currently is the practice), and their children will be sent to an HHS facility. These facilities were used by the Obama administration when thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America arrived at the Mexico-US border in the spring and summer of 2014. While waiting for the results of immigration hearings, the majority of unaccompanied minors were placed in shelters or foster care, under the supervision of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and a very small percentage were reunified with family members previously residing in the United States.
In order to implement this policy of detaining children in separate facilities from their mothers/caregivers, the Trump administration will have to increase funding for HHS ORR to house and care for these childre. This is unlikely to occur. Like the immigrant family detention jails, the HHS-ORR’s programs for children have been marred by significant complaints of poor oversight and lack of appropriate care. In a 2016 reportto Congress, the Government Accountability Office found that HHS ORR did not regularly monitor its shelter and foster care providers, and therefore cannot ensure that children are in fact receiving appropriate services. In addition to further overburdening an already overburdened system, Trump’s proposal of an enhanced immigrant detention system for asylum-seeking children completely disregards these children’s fundamental right to liberty.
It is important to understand that the vast majority of women and children detained in Pennsylvania and Texas’ immigrant detention jails escaped severe poverty and extreme levels of crime and violence in the Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). They were confronted with very limited and impossible options: to make the treacherous and uncertain journey to the United States, facing the threat of deportation once in the country or to be persecuted, raped, kidnapped and/or killed in their countries of origin. For most, leaving behind their families, friends, networks of support, culture and country is an option of last resort.
It is well documented that detention undermines human dignity, causes unnecessary suffering, and has numerous negative and long-lasting effects on individuals. Detention of children is particularly serious due to its potentially devastating effects on their physical, emotional, and psychological development, even if they remain with their families. For refugees, migrants and asylum-seeking families who have experienced hunger and malnutrition, extreme levels of violence and trauma in their home countries, and endured intense hardships during the immigration journey, the impact of incarceration once in the United States only exacerbates these past traumatic experiences.
These families make the journey to the United States seeking safety, economic security and stability. Mothers should not have to choose between protecting their children’s lives and detention. It is never in the best interest of a child to be detained for immigration purposes. While the United States has the power to admit, deny entry or return migrants, it equally has an obligation to respect the human rights of all migrants in the process.