The US government has deliberately adopted immigration policies and practices that caused catastrophic harm to thousands of people seeking safety in the United States, including the separation of over 6,000 family units in a four-month period, more than previously disclosed by authorities, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.
USA: ‘You Don’t Have Any Rights Here’: Illegal Pushbacks, Arbitrary Detention and Ill-treatment of Asylum-seekers in the United States reveals the brutal toll of the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine and dismantle the US asylum system in gross violation of US and international law. The cruel policies and practices documented include: mass illegal pushbacks of asylum-seekers at the US–Mexico border; thousands of illegal family separations; and increasingly arbitrary and indefinite detentions of asylum-seekers, frequently without parole.
“The Trump administration is waging a deliberate campaign of widespread human rights violations in order to punish and deter people seeking safety at the US–Mexico border,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
“The intensity, scale and scope of the abuses against people seeking asylum are truly sickening. Congress and US law enforcement agencies must conduct prompt, thorough and impartial investigations to hold the government accountable and ensure this never happens again.”
The report comes just as the administration has introduced proposed regulations that would effectively terminate the Flores agreement, which mandates that children cannot be held in family detention centers for more than 20 days. The public has 60 days to comment on the proposed regulations.
“Right now, hundreds of children are languishing in tent cities on the border. Even more children are locked behind bars in family detention centers. This is nothing short of unconscionable. No child should grow up in detention, and no child or family should be punished for seeking safety,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
“People who are running for their lives have the right to a fair hearing and humane treatment. Despite this, the Trump administration is seeking to detain more families for longer periods of time. This is a betrayal of families seeking safety from violence and persecution. We must stop this proposed regulation before it goes into effect.”
Approximately 8,000 family units separated in 2017 and 2018
Last month, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) disclosed to Amnesty International that it forcibly separated over 6,000 family units (a term that US authorities have used inconsistently to refer to whole families or individual family members) from 19 April to 15 August 2018 alone – more than US authorities had previously admitted. CBP confirmed that this figure still excluded an undisclosed number of families whose separations were not properly recorded, such as grandparents or other non-immediate family members, whose relationships authorities categorize as “fraudulent” and do not count in their statistics. In total, the Trump administration has now admitted to separating approximately 8,000 family units since 2017.
“These shocking new numbers suggest that US authorities have either misinformed the public about how many families they had forcibly separated, or they continued this unlawful practice unabated, despite their own claims and court orders to halt family separations,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.
“Congress must act immediately to investigate and establish a comprehensive record of family separations by US government authorities, and pass legislation prohibiting the separation and indefinite detention of children and families.”
The extreme suffering that US authorities purposefully inflicted by separating families constituted ill-treatment and in some cases torture.
Amnesty International interviewed 15 parents and guardians separated from their children by US border and immigration authorities, including 13 who presented themselves at official border crossings. Those family separations resulted in extreme anguish, and in some instances long-term trauma, for adults and children alike.
In an immigration detention facility in Texas, a 39-year-old Brazilian mother named Valquiria told Amnesty International that CBP agents separated her from her seven-year-old son, without providing any reason, the day after they requested asylum at an official port-of-entry in March 2018.
“They told me: ‘You don’t have any rights here, and you don’t have any rights to stay with your son,’” Valquiria said. “I died at that moment. It would have been better if I had dropped dead… Not knowing where my son was, what he was doing. It was the worst feeling a mother could have. How can a mother not have the right to be with her son?”
Illegal pushbacks and arbitrary detention
In 2017 and 2018, CBP implemented a de facto policy of turning away thousands of people seeking asylum at official ports-of-entry along the entire US-Mexico border.
“Every human being in the world has the right to seek asylum from persecution or serious harm, and request protection in another country,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.
“US border authorities are flagrantly violating US asylum law and international refugee law by forcing people back to Mexico without registering and determining their asylum claim. People pushed back to Mexico may face direct abuses there or deportation and the risk of serious human rights violations in their countries of origin.”
Since 2017, US authorities have also imposed a policy of mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum-seekers, frequently without parole, for the duration of their asylum claims. This constitutes arbitrary detention, in violation of US and international law.
Amnesty International interviewed asylum-seekers being detained indefinitely after requesting protection, including separated family members, older people, and persons with acute health conditions and medical needs.
The organization also documented the cases of 15 transgender and gay asylum-seekers who were detained for periods ranging from several months to almost three years without parole, including two people who were denied parole despite having suffered sexual assaults while in detention. In several cases, their experiences of indefinite detention constituted ill-treatment.
“It’s plainly callous for US authorities to needlessly detain and traumatize people who have come to request protection from persecution or death,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.
“Congress must act now to end the detention of children and families once and for all – and fund alternative options, such as the Family Case Management Program, which have been proven to be 99 percent effective in helping asylum-seeking families understand and comply with their immigration hearing requirements.”