The Donia Human Rights Center held a panel Wednesday night to examine the impact of the current “zero-tolerance” policy of detaining refugee children seeking asylum in the U.S. This policy calls for the prosecution of all individuals who illegally enter the United States, which has resulted in the detention of refugee children who are separated from their families.
More than 50 guests attended the panel, which was hosted at the Ford School of Public Policy and consisted of Law professor James C. Hathaway, the director of Program in Refugee and Asylum Law; Sherrie Kossoudji, associate professor at School of Social Work; and Ann Lin, associate professor and the Public Policy School.
The panel examined the psychological, political and legal impact of the policy on the families, policy makers and public opinion, asking the question of what’s at stake.
Kossoudji initiated the conversation by expressing how the current government is using the separation of families and fear as a policy strategy.
“President Donald Trump … made it clear that the separation of families was in fact a negotiating tool to get Democrats to cave on his immigration demands,” she said.
Kossoudji continued to illuminate the conditions of the children in detention. She said despite adults and children in detention having defined rights, the reports about the detention conditions reflect neglect, abuse and widespread indifference to the well-being of the children, families and adults.
Children were kept in customs, border control and detention for longer than the allowed 72 hours, and they “often had no oversight, they often had little in the way of reasonable food, blankets, toys, books, anything you might think of as something reasonable.”
Kossoudji further described the conditions in which the children were held.
“The eyewitness accounts were that hundreds of immigrant children wait in series of cages created by metal fencing … One cage had 20 children inside,” she said. “Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips and large foil sheets intended to serve as blankets.”
Kossoudji described how the staff is not allowed to touch the children and neither are children allowed to touch each other, resulting in a lack of human contact when a child is crying or frightened. The detainment for the children, according to Kossoudji, can result in social and emotional distress, mental and physical health consequences, poor education outcomes, short and long term family disruption, and mistrust in law enforcement.
Lin continued the discussion, focusing on how the “zero-tolerance” policy came to be, and questioning whether the U.S. is actually in a crisis that warrants this policy. She pointed to a long term decline in border apprehensions.
Furthermore, Lin pointed to the murder rate and governmental issues in the Northern Triangle, an area in Central America that encompasses Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and is known for its heightened rate of violence, as the motivation for refugees coming to the U.S.
“People are living in a stage of crisis,” she said. “So it is not surprising under those conditions, as we see across the world, if people are living in a state of crisis, they will try to leave.”
Lin said the effect of the “zero-tolerance” policy is that refugees are charged with the crime of crossing the border, which means, unless they can provide bail, they are placed in detention until they can come before a judge, after which they usually receive a longer ban for returning to the U.S.
Moreover, Lin said, since children are not allowed to be detained in adult jails, they are separated from the adults.
Hathaway also weighed on the legal implications of the policy, criticizing how the new policy and conditions for refugees do not act in accordance with the law.
“The mess that we are seeing reflects a failure by the United States, not just by the Trump administration but long standing by both democratic and republic administration,” he said.
He stated that despite signing a treaty that states no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention, the U.S. routinely detains asylum seekers, and that the U.S. are not honoring the legal system nor the treaty the U.S. helped draft and design itself.
He further said refugees are entitled to arrive wherever to seek protection, as long as they claim protection. Refugees are not doing anything illegal, Hathaway explained, yet they are still penalized.
Hathaway said even if refugees meet all of the requirements set by the U.S. domestically, the government is still not required to give them refuge, despite this going against the international laws under which the U.S. is bound.
LSA senior Arooshe Giroti said she and fellow LSA senior Josh Greenberg attended the event to learn more about the legality of the refugee situation.
“We are both interested in the rights of refugees and international law, specifically how it relates to what’s going on at the southern border, so we just wanted to learn more about legally what’s happening and not just get a more superficial understanding of it through news outlets or social media.”
Sociology professor Kiyoteru Tsutsui, director of the Donia Human Rights Center and Center for Japanese Studies, also remarked the issue of the detainment of refugee children, despite its importance, has somewhat faded in the background in the debate.
“The main purpose is to inform the public and the university constituents about this particular topic that attracted a lot of attention but kind of subsided, but I bet the issue will come back,” Tsutsui said.
At the conclusion of the discussion, Hathaway underlined in the current refugee legislation and conditions in the U.S.
“The U.S. has found domestic ways to avoid the prohibition of separating children from their parents, to avoid the duty not to detain refugee claimants other than briefly and after showing it to be necessary in the individual case, and generally to give asylum to people who meet the agreed definition of a refugee, including all of the rights that go with it,” Hathaway said. “This is not just a series of acts that are internationally prohibited but they are acts that are fundamentally at odds with our own core values and with our own history.”