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Statement on Forced FAmily Separation At U.S. Border

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection 2018

Genocide Watch Statement on Forced Family Separation, Detention and Deportation

October 4, 2018

Genocide Watch expresses alarm over the practice of family separation that followed the “zero tolerance” border policy announced by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions on 6 April 2018. The cruelty of taking children, including infants under five, from their parents at the border cannot be justified by any constitutionally valid laws. It is a violation of international human rights law and US constitutional protections of people within US borders.  It is morally unacceptable.  It constitutes torture, a crime under US and international law with universal jurisdiction and no immunity for the government officials who practice it.

Of particular concern is the false criminalization of undocumented immigrants who cross the southern border, including refugees from violence in Central America who are seeking asylum in the United States.  Seeking asylum is not a crime. Indeed it is protected by the international refugee treaties to which the US is a party.


Genocide Watch also expresses concern about the policy of detaining families together in what are de facto prisons,  some with cells or even cages. Forced family separations, the caging of human beings, and the detention of persons who have committed no crimes are among the warning indicators of the early stages of the genocidal process that Genocide Watch tracks in abusive countries around the world.  


Criminalization of people is a form of dehumanization.  Dehumanization always facilitates abuse by police, border agents, and other legal authorities.  The criminalization of border crossing is being used to justify family separation, even in the face of evidence of persecution in countries of origin by police and criminal gangs. Dehumanizing language has been used in public statements by our highest officials, including allegations that Latin American immigrants are “rapists,” “animals,” and “not human.” In a tweet on June 19, 2018, the President referred to undocumented immigrants as people who “pour into and infest our country.” The language of dehumanization polarizes society.  It numbs people to human rights abuses committed by our governing officials.

The criminalization of US immigration policy


On 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 US 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.  These children were scattered across the United States in a confusing mixture of detention facilities and foster homes. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not keep accurate track of family relationships in order to reunite families. DHS had no planned family reunification process.  Thousands of children are still separated from their parents.  Some may never see their parents again because the US has lost track or deported their parents.


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 even 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 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 the established American legal procedure of arresting adults and their families without visas at the border, giving them hearings in federal court, and then either deporting or releasing them. Many asylum seekers are now being criminally charged, in contravention of US and international law. These measures are a departure from legal US immigration policies. They follow imposition of blanket travel bans directed at people from predominantly Muslim countries.

Violation of US and international law


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 violates US legal obligations under the UN Conventions on Refugees.


A preliminary injunction was 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.  The US government has failed to obey this injunction.


Following widespread outrage over separation of children from their parents, the President finally issued an executive order on June 20, 2018, that temporarily ended the policy.  But thousands of children still remain without their parents.  They are now being moved from foster homes to a tent city in Texas.  The moves are carried out without warning at night "to keep children from running away."  Who wouldn't run away from being forcibly deported to a sweltering detention camp?


Genocide and US history

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 an indicator of the development of genocidal ideologies and policies. It is an early warning sign of future crimes against humanity. 


Genocide Watch 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. 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 apparently different form.


Genocide Watch further reminds the US government and the American people of past US support for dictatorships in Latin America, especially the government of General Efrain Rios Montt in Guatemala, who oversaw the genocide of over 200,000 Mayans during the 1980s, and in El Salvador and Honduras, the countries of origin of many immigrants from Central America.  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 outside ruling national, ethnic, or racial groups, 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 groups accused of being criminals or outsiders. 


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 acceptance of crimes against humanity and even genocide.

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