When a Brazilian woman crossed the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, last November with her 14-year old son, they were promptly separated by immigration officials. The woman was detained in local facilities, and her son was sent to a detention center in Chicago.
They were separated for more than nine months.
Although it may seem like a bureaucratic error, the incident has become the norm after President Donald Trump enacted a “zero tolerance” policy for unauthorized border crossings in January, calling for undocumented families to be separated.
Now the United Nations is calling on the US to end this approach, arguing that it represents an ongoing human rights violation.
“The US should immediately halt this practice,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN human rights agency, OHCHR, said in a statement. “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."
“The child’s best interest should always come first, including over migration management objectives and other administrative concerns," she added.
Read More: What's Happening to Migrant Kids in the US?
In a press conference Tuesday, Shamdasani insisted that entering a country without the right papers should not be a criminal offense and “does not warrant jailing children.”
She also said that the US is the only country in the world not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Thousands of undocumented immigrants pass the Mexican border into the US every day and apply for asylum, claiming that political instability, rampant gang violence, and domestic abuse threaten their lives, according to the Guardian.
Many of these migrants are swiftly deported or detained without much media coverage, but the detention of children seems to have struck a nerve in recent months.
Since the beginning of the year, at least 429 cases of children, some as young as one, being separated from their parents have been documented, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Some of these cases, including the experience of the Brazilian woman described earlier, form the basis of a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other human rights groups.
“Whether or not the Trump administration wants to call this a ‘policy,’ it certainly is engaged in a widespread practice of tearing children away from their parents,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement.
This issue recently became conflated with another immigrant’s rights issue, when an image of immigrant children being detained in a cage spread across social media.
Dating from 2014, the scene is not the result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, but it does represent another human rights violation, according to the ACLU — the detention of unaccompanied minors.
The ACLU released a report documenting the various abuses that unaccompanied minors face in US detention facilities including being sexually assaulted, denied medical care, and run over by vehicles.
“The misconduct demonstrated in these records is breathtaking, as is the government’s complete failure to hold officials who abuse their power accountable,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, ACLU Border Litigation Project staff attorney, in a statement. “The abuse that takes place by government officials is reprehensible and un-American.”
The US government currently has more than 11,200 unaccompanied minors in detention, according to NBC News.
“[There is] nothing normal about detaining children,” Shamdasani said. “It is never in the best interests of the child and always constitutes a child rights violation.”
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