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How The International Community Has Reacted to U.S. Immigration Policy


You’ve just arrived in the United States after a months-long journey through Central America and Mexico. You left because local maras and pandillas (gangs) threatened you and your family with violence and death. Everything you own, everyone you love, is miles away. You made the journey with your two kids, hoping to give them a chance at a life without fear, aware of the risks. But to stay would mean almost certain death. After crossing the border, you tell a border patrol agent that you wish to seek asylum, a human right protected by domestic and international law. The agent nods. He takes you and your kids to a detention facility. Suddenly, you are being told that you will be prosecuted for a crime and separated from your children. No one tells you where you will be taken, or why. Your kids are crying. They are taken from you, and you are not told where they are sent. For five weeks you are detained in a crowded building. For five weeks you cannot speak with your children. For five weeks you are left to wonder how this all could have happened…

Harrowing accounts of family separation on the Mexico-U.S. border, like that of Eddy and Lilian, have been met with shock, awe, and resistance in the United States. Democrats and Republicans alike have decried family separations, which are caused by the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy. The policy, which breaks from years of established (and bipartisan) practice, elects to prosecute undocumented border crossers in criminal courts, instead of in immigration courts, which do not issue criminal charges. When parents are processed as criminals, they are separated from their children.

The New York Times estimates that well over 2,000 children have been separated from their parents since the policy was implemented. Many of these children have been sent to detention facilities around the United States managed by Health and Human Services, while others are released to relatives that reside in the United States. In many cases, children haven’t been able to speak to their parents for weeks and sometimes even months. Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, one of the few who was granted access to detention centers, reported that he met an 8-month-old boy who hadn’t spoken to his family in 8 months.

“We visited the Infant Room where four very young children, including Roger the eight-month-old, were being looked after by staff. We picked up and carried the children,” Castro said in a tweet Monday.

Following in Castro’s footsteps, a number of politicians and high-profile Americans have spoken out against family separations on the border. On the Democratic side, Senator Dianne Feinstein has not only denounced family separations, but has also teamed up with Senate Democrats to try and pass the Keep Families Together Act. All four living First Ladies criticized the new policy, and Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, along with 12 other Senate Republicans, wrote a letter urging the president to reconsider. Even Melania Trump said that she “hates to see” families separated at the border.

Bipartisan pressure successfully convinced President Trump to change his “Zero Tolerance” policy. On June 20th, the White House issued a statement rescinding the provision of the “Zero Tolerance” policy that led to children being separated from their families. However, many of the children who were separated as a result of the policy have yet to be reunited with their families. More troublingly, President Trump stated on June 25th that undocumented immigrants entering the United States will not be given due process, and will automatically be deported to their home countries. Republicans and Democrats have denounced this most recent position, and the ACLU has called the revoking of due process for undocumented immigrants “illegal and unconstitutional.” The Trump Administration has called on Congress to pass a more comprehensive immigration bill to permanently address border issues. Congress was unable to agree on a bill before their July 4th recess.

Here at Freely, it is our mission to look at domestic issues through an international lens. The chaos and bitterness surrounding recent immigration policy changes warrants a journey beyond U.S. borders, to explore how the world has reacted.

Why is it important to look to the international community for new perspectives on divisive domestic issues?

Both in the U.S. and in other countries, the international community has historically played a pivotal role in encouraging domestic change. Through consensus-based organizations like the United Nations, and even through individual statements by world leaders, the global community acts as a check on domestic abuses of power. For example, international outrage about Apartheid in South Africa gave way to the rise of Nelson Mandela and the end of Apartheid in 1994; statements condemning U.S. support for authoritarian regimes in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s arguably resulted in shifts in U.S. foreign policy objectives; an almost universal lack of global support for repressive regimes in Libya and North Korea has persuaded leaders of both countries to be open to meetings with other world leaders. These are just a few instances in which the international community has successfully promoted domestic change.

Aside from affecting domestic change, the opinions of the international community offer an important, denationalized perspective on domestic issues. It is thus vital to observe controversial issues in our home countries through the lens of the international community. The Iraq War, Palestinian-Israeli border disputes, climate change, the One Belt One Road Initiative, and refugee policy take a much different form depending on which member of the global community you ask.

How has the international community reacted to U.S. immigration policy?

The United Nations’ human rights office called for the United States to revise its standing immigration policy, and work towards “community-based alternatives” to detention. A human rights office spokesperson also said that “children should never be detained for reasons related to their or their parents’ migration status.” Last Friday, nearly a dozen human rights experts, commissioned by the UN, said that even the new Trump Administration policy “may lead to indefinite detention of entire families in violation of international human rights standards.” Secretary-General of the UN Antonio Guterres weighed in as well, saying that “refugees and migrants should always be treated with dignity” and that “children must not be traumatized by being separated from their parents. Family unity must be preserved.” It should be noted that a day after UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein issued a critical statement against U.S. immigration policy, the Administration elected to leave the UN Human Rights Council. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley cited an “anti-Israel bias” and the inability of the Human Rights Council to enact reforms that the U.S. suggested over a year ago. It is unclear if the decision was motivated by Council condemnations of U.S. border policy.

Pope Francis also criticized family separation, before the new policy was issued, saying that “populism is not the answer to the world’s immigration problems.” British Prime Minister Theresa May, the Deputy Foreign Minister of El Salvador, the Foreign Minister of Mexico, the President of Guatemala, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and even Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khameini all voiced opposition to family separation. Surprisingly, the anti-immigration firebrand Marine Le Pen, who unsuccessfully ran for president of France, said that she is “opposed to a procedure that separates parents and children.” In a video released by the Anti-Defamation League, which featured Holocaust survivors who were separated from their families, Rachelle Goldstein said that “Separation of the family, for us, is probably the worst thing that ever happened to us.” Goldstein was separated from her parents in Belgium during the Holocaust. She was three years old at the time.

The most striking feature of the international reaction to family separations on the U.S. border is the wide range of ideologies and geographies that it spans. Politicians affiliated with both left and right wing parties around the world have openly criticized the United States for family separations on the border. This is all the more significant in light of the U.S. departure from the human rights council, given that Nikki Haley criticized the human rights council for being a “self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.”

This position might make slightly more sense if the United States was doing a relatively better job of defending human rights than the Council itself. But given the harsh global reaction to family separation at the border, it is hypocritical and tone-deaf to lambast the Council for failing in its human rights objectives when there appears to be a significant degree of concern about the United States’ own violations of human rights.

In questions of human rights concerns, all countries–even those that have historically been purveyors of human rights–ought to listen to their domestic constituents as well as their international partners. The international arena provides a perspective that is generally immune to domestic partisanship and fervor. With controversies as salient as immigration policy, it is especially important to think outside the confines of one’s own country and actively consult the international community for opinions, suggestions, and ideas.

So what can we do?

Unfortunately, immigration policy in every country is dealt with through domestic procedures, which are often carried out by elected officials. In other words, sweeping and structural changes to immigration policy cannot happen overnight. One of the most obvious ways to advocate for immigrants and refugees in the United States–and in other countries around the world–is to vote for politicians that support progressive policy changes. You might also consider volunteering or donating to an organization that offers services to immigrants, particularly asylum-seekers. You can find an updated list of action steps here, if you wish to advocate for immigrants in the U.S., in light of recent policy changes.

But affecting real and lasting change in the realm of human rights also requires a major cultural change, a paradigm shift in the way that we approach controversial issues. Therefore, we encourage you to not only pay attention to immigration policy in your home country, but to research how the international community has acted (and reacted) in regards to immigration-related issues. In conversations with friends and family members, we urge you to think internationally and discuss the opinions and perspectives of other countries. Read a newspaper that’s not published in your home country, have a genuine conversation with someone from a different country than your own, and keep up with international news. We also challenge you to look at other controversial issues through an international lens, especially before taking a particular stance.

In doing this, we may all learn a bit more about each other, and more importantly, about the often distorted ways that we see the world when it’s viewed only through the lens of our home country.

Photo by Mitch Lensink. Mitch Lensink