While the Trump Administration’s new zero tolerance policy continues to separate immigrant families in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border, the United Nations human rights office is urging the administration to “immediately halt” the policy, believing it to be in violation of children’s rights.
The administration rejected the U.N. accusation and accused the organization’s human rights office of hypocrisy.
The zero tolerance policy was implemented last month by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The new policy prosecutes adults illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and in doing so, separates any parents from their children.
Not only is the policy a human rights violation, the U.N. and rights advocates argue, it also hasn’t deterred illegal immigration. There were 51,912 undocumented immigrants apprehended in May, the third month in a row the number has topped 50,000, according to numbers released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday.
Of those apprehended in May, 6,405 were unaccompanied children.
“There is nothing normal about detaining children,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told reporters in Geneva. “Detention is never in the best interests of a child and always constitutes a child rights violation.”
The new zero tolerance practice sends undocumented adults apprehended in the Valley to federal court in McAllen or Brownsville, where a magistrate judge issues sentences.
“The U.S. should immediately halt this practice of separating families and stop criminalizing what should at most be an administrative offense — that of irregular entry or stay in the U.S.,” Shamdasani said.
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, responded in a statement.
“Once again, the United Nations shows its hypocrisy by calling out the United States while it ignores the reprehensible human rights records of several members of its own Human Rights Council,” Haley said. “While the high commissioner’s office ignorantly attacks the United States with words, the United States leads the world with its actions, like providing more humanitarian assistance to global conflicts than any other nation.”
Clara Long, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization, was baffled by Haley’s statement, especially as Long’s work focuses in part on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Nikki Haley’s comment to the U.N. is absolutely wrong as a matter of fact and international law,” Long said. “International borders are not zones of human exceptions. What U.S. authorities should be doing is paying attention to the U.N.’s analysis. Entering a country to seek asylum should not be criticized under international law.”
The administration has portrayed its policy as being about illegal entry; however, many of the detained migrants enter at international bridges across the Valley to request asylum.
Brian Griffey recently traveled the length of the border as a regional researcher and advisor with Amnesty International, also a non-governmental organization focused on human rights. During his trip from San Diego to Brownsville, Griffey said he met with fathers who were separated from their children.
Griffey’s been working with a team tracking separation of families since November 2017, and from January to May they’ve followed 15 cases specifically. Of those, he said 13 presented themselves formally at a port of entry seeking asylum, which is not illegal.
“That flies in the face of what we’re hearing from this administration for justification for separation,” Griffey said in an interview.
Shamdasani argued similarly when talking to reporters in Geneva.
“The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles,” Shamdasani said. “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 U.S. migration control appears to have been prioritized over the effective care and protection of migrant children.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defended the administration’s enforcement.
“These numbers show that while the Trump Administration is restoring the rule of law, it will take a sustained effort and continuous commitment of resources over many months to disrupt cartels, smugglers and nefarious actors,” DHS Press Secretary Tyler Q. Houlton said in a statement Wednesday. “…No one expects to reverse years of political inaction overnight or in a month. It is also clear change will take more than administration action alone. Congress must act to end legal loopholes that have left us with policies that serve as tremendous magnets for illegal immigration.”