Human Rights Watch: U.S. Must Stop Separating Families At Border

Human Rights Watch has condemned the U.S. policy of separating immigrant children from their parents, following a denouncement of the policy by the U.N. human rights office Tuesday.

In a press briefing note from the Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations offered this strongly worded rebuke:

“The practice of separating families amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child. While the rights of children are generally held in high regard in the US, it is the only country in the world not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We encourage it to accede to the Convention and to fully respect the rights of all children.

The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles. The child’s best interest should always come first, including over migration management objectives or other administrative concerns. It is therefore of great concern that in the US migration control appears to have been prioritised over the effective care and protection of migrant children.”

In response, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley deflected from the issue by accusing the U.N. of “hypocrisy” and pointing out the “reprehensible human rights records” of other countries sitting on the UN Human Rights Council, and concluding ultimately that “[n]either the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders.”

Human Rights Watch wrote in response:

“Yes, the US does have a right to protect its borders – but not by trampling the rights of vulnerable families and children. The UN’s human rights office in Geneva, led by High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has an admirable track record of shining a spotlight on human rights abuses around the world, and it’s to their credit that they didn’t shy away from criticizing this US policy. Human rights don’t end at border zones, after all.”

The Trump Administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy includes the detention of pregnant women, and the separation of children– many under the age of 12, and some as young as 18 months– from their parents. Since taking effect, the new policy has led to the separation of 658 children from their parents in a two week period in May.

The same day as the condemnations from the U.N. and Human rights watch, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with Hugh Hewitt about the matter on his conservative talk radio program. A family values conservative, Hewitt pressed him about the new policy, telling Sessions he’s “disturbed” by it:

“HH: Let me begin. Is it absolutely necessary, General, to separate parents from children when they are detained or apprehended at the border?

JS: Yes. What’s happening is we are having more people coming bringing children with them entering between the ports of entry, between the ports of entry illegally, and they’re not, you cannot give them immunity. That’s an offense. We believe every person that enters the country illegally like that should be prosecuted.”

Hewitt pressed on:

“HH: I understand the prosecution part. But is it necessary to separate the children? Could they not be detained in facilities where at least mothers and infants could remain together?

JS: Well, most are not infants. Most are teenagers, although we do have a number of younger ones now, more than we’ve seen recently. And they are maintained in a very safe environment not by the law enforcement team at Homeland Security, but put with Health and Human Services.”

Still unsatisfied with the A.G.’s answers, Hewitt asked:

“HH: But General, what I’m pressing on, because I’m disturbed by this. I don’t think children should be separated from biological parents at any age, but especially if they’re infants and toddlers. I think it’s traumatic and terribly difficult on the child. Is it absolutely necessary to do so? Can’t we have facilities where parents remain united with kids?

JS: Well, we can, we’d be glad to work at that, and actually, to keep them as close as possible, and then they’re deported. But the law requires us to keep children in a different facility than we do for adults.”

But this line of defense is dubious, given that the administration has publicly acknowledged the purpose of the new policy was not to adhere more closely to U.S. statues, but is a strategy calculated to deter border crossings. Donald Trump’s ability to brag to voters in 2020 that he has decreased border crossings and increased the number of immigrants held in detention has come at great human cost to families and children.

Lee Gelernt, a veteran attorney for the ACLU, told the Washington Post: “Little kids are begging and screaming not to be taken from parents, and they’re being hauled off. It’s as bad as anything I’ve seen in twenty-five-plus years of doing this work.”

As The New Yorker points out, referencing scientific literature archived by the National Institutes of Health, “Research has shown that removing a young child from her primary caregivers for even a short period can cause long-term psychological harm.”