Genocide Watch Issues Statement on Forced Family Separation, Detention & Deportation in the United States


On July 1, 2018, Genocide Watch issued a statement on Forced Family Separation, Detention & Deportation in the United States. Genocide Watch issues statements about matters of concern for the long-term prevention of genocide and other mass atrocities.



Genocide Watch Statement on Forced Family Separation, Detention & Deportation


Genocide Watch expresses alarm over the accelerated practice of family separation which followed the “zero tolerance” border policy announced by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions on 6 April 2018. The cruelty of taking children, including infants, from their parents at the border cannot be justified by any laws or policy agendas. It is a contravention of international human rights law and US constitutional protections of people within US sovereign borders against cruel and unusual punishment.


Genocide Watch further expresses concern about the recently announced policy of detaining families together, perhaps in separate cells or cages. Forced family separations, the caging of human beings, and the detention of persons who have committed no crimes are among the early warning indicators that Genocide Watch documents and tracks in countries around the world.


Of particular concern is the wholesale criminalization of undocumented people crossing the southern border, including refugees from violence and poverty in Central America who are seeking asylum in the United States. Criminalization of vulnerable people inevitably leads to dehumanization and facilitates abuse. The criminalization of border crossing has been used to justify and rationalize family separation, even in the face of evidence of terrible suffering. The use of dehumanizing language to refer to immigrants from Latin America in particular has characterized the Trump administration, which has referred to Latin American immigrants in broad strokes as “rapists,” “animals,” and “not human.” In a tweet on June 19, 2018, President Donald Trump referred to undocumented immigrants as people who “pour into and infest our country.” The language of dehumanization can radicalize society and make it immune to human rights abuses committed by its governing officials.


In April 2018 the New York Times reported that the United States had already removed an estimated 700 children from their families at the southern border over the previous six months. In April 2018 US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” border policy that set a new goal of a 100 percent criminal prosecution rate for people crossing the border without proper documentation. According to Trump administration statistics, 2,342 children were separated from their families as a result of criminal prosecution between May 5 and June 9, 2018, bringing the total number of children forcibly separated from their families to over 3000, though no reliable figure is easily available. These children are now scattered across the United States in a confusing mixture of detention facilities and foster home arrangements. It is unclear whether the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has kept track of family relationships in order to reunite families once parents have been tried in court. It is also not clear whether DHS has a reunification process mapped out.


According to some reliable reports, border control agents have used deception to implement the separations. Many parents crossing the border were not told that their children would be taken from them. They were told that they would be reunited soon or that their children were being taken for a “bath.” Other reliable reports suggest that border patrol agents have used maximal cruelty in enforcing the separations, not allowing parents to have a few minutes with their children beforehand and, in some cases, telling the parents that they will never see their children again. At some detention centers, staff are under the impression that they are not allowed to hug or even touch traumatized children. In one documented case, a staff member was told that he must not allow three siblings to comfort each other with hugs. The long-term trauma caused by forced family separation and physical isolation has been well documented for both children and adults.


The current administration’s policy of separating children builds upon almost a decade of increasingly coercive border policies towards refugees and migrants that developed under the Obama administration. An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report from 2018 documented a startling increase in and apparent tolerance for the abuse of children at the border, including “a pattern of intimidation, harassment, physical abuse, refusal of medical services, improper deportation between 2009 and 2014.” The report also documented instances of sexual and verbal abuse, including rape and death threats. The majority of these children had arrived in the United States alone. Under previous administrations, coercive family separation was used sparingly. Most families arriving together were charged with misdemeanors and released.


The policy of “zero tolerance” departs from established practice by charging adults at the border with criminal charges in federal court. There are reports that even asylum seekers are being criminally charged, in contravention of US and international law. These measures are a radicalization of prior policies that come on the heels of a series of new challenges to established protections for documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States as well as attempted blanket travel bans directed at people from several predominantly Muslim countries.


As expressed by the United Nations in several statements in June, forcibly separating children from their parents is a grave violation of the rights of the child and of the rights of refugees. Although the United States has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the family separation policy still breaches US legal obligations under other international human rights conventions.


Genocide Watch appreciates the preliminary injunction granted to the American Civil Liberties Union by federal Judge Dana M. Sabraw, who ordered on June 26, 2018 that the US government must reunite all separated migrant children with their parents within 30 days and that parents must be allowed to speak with their children by phone within 10 days.


Genocide Watch also appreciates President Trump’s executive order from June 20, 2018, which temporarily ended the policy of family separation at the border and committed the US government to maintaining family unity.


Genocide Watch reminds the US government and the American people that family separation is one of the most common genocidal patterns, occurring in almost all historical cases of genocide. Family separation can also be a precursor to the development of genocidal ideologies and policies in the long-term. It is therefore an early red flag for future mass atrocities. The United States of America should exercise vigilance in supporting and promoting family unity among all residents of the country, including families made up of both citizens as well as documented and undocumented immigrants.


Genocide Watch also reminds the US government and the American people of the country’s own history of forced family separation among black American slaves and among Native Americans, whose children were sent to Indian Residential Schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. Such genocidal patterns continue to harm these communities in the present day and are reflected in discriminatory incarceration and child removal statistics. Forced family separation policies are written very deeply into our nation’s past and must always be challenged when they reemerge in the present, even if in a different form.


Genocide Watch further reminds the US government and the American people of past US support for dictatorships in Latin America, including especially the government of General Efrain Rios Montt in Guatemala, who oversaw the genocide of over 200,000 Mayans during the 1980s. Political, military, and economic support for such regimes has led to the long-term destabilization of the region. Many Central Americans have been forced to flee the violent economic and political consequences of instability, widespread militarization, and gross human rights abuses.


Finally, Genocide Watch reminds the US government and the American people that the criminalization of entire groups of people, especially those who exist at the margins of belonging, is another common genocidal pattern. Jews in Germany, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Tutsis in Rwanda, New People in Cambodia, Kulaks in Soviet-occupied Ukraine, Maya in Guatemala -- these were all people who were suspected of having criminal and seditious aims in their home societies.


Countries wishing to avoid the often slow and unexpected descent into genocidal thinking and practices should seek to support the rights and the dignity of all peoples under their protection, especially vulnerable groups such as immigrant children and families fleeing poverty and violence. History has shown that training members of security forces, such as the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, in cruel policies such as family separation, and normalizing such policies among the citizenry, create internal tensions that render societies deeply vulnerable to the risk of genocide.

(c) 2018 Genocide Watch​

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