THE FAMILY SEPARATION POLICY EXPLAINED
More than 2,300 children have been ripped from their parents since April, while trying to cross into the U.S. to seek asylum. Whatever your politics, separating families is inhumane. And causing intentional suffering meets the definitions of torture under both US and international law.
The human consequences have been horrific, and in the main are understood. The Washington Post reported that Marco Antonio Muñoz, a 39-year-old from Honduras, killed himself in a padded cell after his 3-year-old was wrenched from his arms. While The New York Times described a 5-year-old boy, also from Honduras, who had been separated from his father and cried himself to sleep at night with a stick-figure drawing of his family under his pillow.
What’s less clear is why families are being, and what we can do to help?
WHO ARE THE FAMILIES CROSSING THE BORDER?
The overwhelming majority of people crossing the border in 2018 are seeking asylum from gang violence in Central America. Over the past ten years, the political situation in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala has grown increasingly dangerous, as gangs and cartels have seized power.
People are being extorted and required to make regular payments to gang members. If they refuse, they or their family members are murdered. Boys as young as eight years old are forced into the gangs. If they or their parents refuse, they are murdered. Young girls are forced to become the property of gang members and treated as sex slaves. If they or their families refuse, they are murdered.
The police are unable to help, and in many cases have been infiltrated with gang members, so that making a police report brings its own danger.
Quite simply parents are fleeing with their children to the US to rescue them from rape, gang violence and murder and seeking asylum.
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WHAT IS ASYLUM?
The right to claim asylum is enshrined in international law under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. All governments are obliged to provide protection to people who meet the criteria for asylum.
Asylum seekers must show that they have a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group, and are unable or unwilling to seek protection from the authorities in their own country.
WHY DON’T FAMILIES ENTER THE US LEGALLY?
Entering at the legal ports of entry is becoming increasingly difficult and sometimes impossible because U.S. border protection agents are physically preventing families from entering the country by they’re telling people at the borders that there’s no room.
U.S. border protection agents are systematically violating U.S. and international law by blocking immigrants at international ports of entry on the southern border from entering the country so they can claim asylum,” writes Texas-based immigration writer Debbie Nathan.
IF THE PORTS OF ENTRY TURN PEOPLE AWAY, HOW CAN THEY THEN SEEK ASYLUM?
The answer is they can’t, unless they can find another way to cross. Remember these families are desperate because they’re fleeing gang violence, rape and murder.
Families either make the 1,600km crossing across the Gulf of Mexico on a raft, or trek the 2,600 up through Mexico. Many people look for Border Patrol to turn themselves in, because they know they’re going to ask for asylum,” says Anne Chandler, executive director of the Houston office of the nonprofit Tahirih Justice Center. Historically, at that point, they’ve been able to go to a family detention center and start the asylum process.
Bear in mind too that the administration’s policy of detaining families, like the child separation policy that preceded it, applies not only to those who cross between points of entry but also to those who obey our laws to the letter and present themselves at a point of entry to claim asylum.
WHY ARE CHILDREN BEING SEPARATED FROM THEIR PARENTS?
Anybody who steps foot on U.S. soil, has the legal right to seek asylum. But in May, the Trump Administration decided to enact a “zero tolerance” policy against people crossing the border. What this means is everyone, regardless of cause or circumstance of entry, is prosecuted for illegal entry and put in federal jail. You’re not allowed to keep your children with you in jail which is why they’re now being separated.
Under the Obama administration, families were held in immigration detention or released while they waited until their case was heard by an immigration judge.
DOES THE LAW REQUIRE THAT FAMILIES BE SEPARATED?
The problem is neither United States law nor the Constitution. It’s the administration’s belief that both can be ignored. As long as this administration pursues a deterrence policy predicated on inflicting harm on children and families and disregarding settled constitutional principles, the crisis will continue.
That's why 34 of the United States' very best legal firms, employing 30,000 people across all 50 states, have come together and coalesced resources to provide pro bono representation to the parents and children of these families. And to ensure the rule of law is upheld.
Business is once again stepping up.
WHEN WILL THESE CHILDREN BE REUNITED WITH THEIR PARENTS?
Nobody knows. Many children are currently being held in old warehouses, tents or big box stores. Some have been placed with foster families.
“There is no agency responsible for facilitating communication or reunification of these families. Parents are getting deported without their kids, and shelters are filling up. These families are being transferred and taken all around the U.S. depending on where there is space for them. Parents are not told where they are going, where their kids are, or whether they are okay,” says immigration attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch.
WHAT DOES THE U.N. SAY?
The United Nations has urged Washington to immediately halt the practice of separating asylum-seeking families. “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,” said a spokesperson for the U.N. human rights office.
Shocking as it sounds, forcibly removing children from a national, ethnic, racial or religious group is an act of genocide, as defined in the Genocide Convention in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 6).
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
- Donate to organisations who will help these children and their parents, and fight this barbarism: RAICES, The ACLU, Catholic Charities of Houston and Glennon Doyle’s Together Rising flash mob are good places to look. Check out this state-by-state list of immigration organisations and resources and share as widely as possible.
- Join one of the 600+ Families Belong Together events planned for Saturday, 30th June in Washington DC, or in a city or town near you. If you’re in the UK, join the event at the U.S. Embassy which I’m co-hosting.
- Follow me in the Families Belong Together – UK group where I’m giving regular briefings on Facebook Live.
- And finally if you’re in the UK, sign Amnesty International’s global campaign to reunite refugee families.
Thank you so much for reading and for being such a smart and compassionate community. Please share if you have other ideas for how to help.
Question: Has this article helped you to understand the family separation crisis better? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share in the comments box below.
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