This year, when a large number of families and children arrived in the United States seeking protection, the U.S. government’s primary response has been to expand family detention and accelerate deportations.
This Monday, the ACLU and other human rights and immigrant’s rights groups will testify before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about refugee families and children who have fled brutal violence in Central America and are seeking protection in the United States. This hearing will review the U.S. government’s response from the perspective of human rights, not expediency.
On that metric, the U.S. response has been abysmal. Virtually overnight the Department of Homeland Security built two mass family detention centers this summer, with the capacity to detain 1,200 family members. In November DHS will start detaining families with children at a new facility in Dilley, Texas which, at full operational capacity, will imprison 2,400 individuals – making it the single largest immigration detention facility in the country. Last month allegations of sexual assault and abuse involving mothers detained at the newly repurposed Karnes Detention Facility emerged.
Meanwhile, imprisoned in remote detention facilities and without lawyers, many asylum seekers are shunted through asylum interviews without help or time to present their cases. The ACLU is currently in court challenging the rapid and short-circuited procedures, which are a problem not only from a fair trial perspective but also because asylum seekers are being returned to very real dangers. Because these procedures have been shrouded in secrecy—despite their potentially life-threatening consequences—we are also suing to make public those expedited removal procedures.
While some of these measures are a direct response to the growing number of arriving families and children, the mistreatment of asylum seekers,including children arriving alone, started before last year.
For instance, of the 89 individuals–including 11 unaccompanied children– I interviewed who had been returned or deported at the U.S. border without a hearing over the last few years, 55 percent were not asked about their fear of returning to their country or presented with the chance to seek asylum before being ordered deported. Many of those who were asked if they were afraid and said yes were nonetheless quickly deported without the chance to see an asylum officer and request protection here. Thereafter, some of those individuals were indeed attacked, raped, or their relatives murdered when they were dumped back in the danger they fled.
Monday’s hearing is an important step in requiring accountability for the United States, which has responded to what President Obama called a “humanitarian situation” by committing additional human rights violations. The United States has a responsibility under international human rights law to treat asylum seekers with justice—to provide fair hearings and a chance to seek protection here; to ensure asylum seekers are not returned to danger; and exempt children from detention. But more importantly, it has an opportunity to protect, instead of penalize, refugee children.
The hearing will be available via webcast starting at 9:00 AM (EDT) here.
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