“Our New Ellis Island Is a Detention Center”

While the USA’s notorious family separation policy has ended, migrants continue to be met with inhumane treatment at border facilities as they flee the very violence that the US had a role in causing.
Photo by: mákvirág / Public Domain Mark 1.0 / Source: Flickr

Today, headlines about the United States’ southern border are pervasive in the American news cycle, from criticisms of policies being put forth by the Trump Administration to descriptions of the conditions that migrants are fleeingOne need only to read about the murder rate in Honduras and the brutal ways in which women are killed by gang violence, as reported by the New York Times, to understand exactly why parents would risk their families’ lives and make the dangerous journey to the U.S. But violence doesn’t end for migrants when they leave their home countries.

On a recent panel at the 2019 Global Philanthropy Forum, Jonathan Ryan, a human rights lawyer based in San Antonio and the CEO of RAICES (The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Service), described the abhorrent conditions migrants experience when they reach the border. Whether individuals hand themselves over at a port-of-entry or are apprehended after they’ve crossed the border, they’re brought to what is called an “ice-box.” These are mobile containers that can be refrigerated to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. For a person who has been walking through a desert in 115-degree heat, who is sweaty, bloody, and might still be wet from crossing the river, being thrown into that environment is nothing short of torture. They can be left there for days, up to a month. The words they’re often greeted with from border patrol agents are, “welcome to hell,” and they’re threatened to be left in the ice-boxes if they apply for asylum, according to Mr. Ryan.

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The death of 7-year-old Jakelin Amei Caal Maquin in border patrol custody in December 2018 marked a flashpoint in the debate over the U.S. government’s hardline approach to immigration enforcement. But media reports of high-profile deaths capture only a sliver of the human rights violations that occur in detention, according to Altaaf Saadi, a physician who evaluates individuals in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention for legal groups and human rights organizations. Detainees experience dangerous levels of neglect, affecting both their physical and mental health. Children as young as one year have been separated from their families while their parents serve out prison sentences for entering the U.S. illegally, or wait in detention while their asylum claims are processed.

Last year, more than 2500 children were separated from their families as a result of a controversial policy meant to deter people from making the journey to the U.S.’ southern border. While a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to end the practice in June, separations of families that aren’t simply parent-child aren’t included in the order or counted in separation statistics.

How did we get here?

The current situation on the border cannot be divorced from the history of U.S. involvement in the region and the role it played in creating today’s conditions.

In 1954 the U.S. played an instrumental role in orchestrating the Guatemalan coup d’état, unseating the country’s second democratically elected president and leading to a  36-year civil war. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the U.S. continued to fund Guatemalan security forces which killed thousands of civilians during the nation’s civil war. It gave even more support to anti-communist forces in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, according to U.S. intelligence documents.

The armed conflicts in Central America’s Northern Triangle ⎯ El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras ⎯ together displaced almost 2 million people . As a result, thousands of Central Americans traveled to the U.S. to escape the fighting and economic conditions in their war-torn countries.

Enduring Effects

The U.S. has apologized for its role in Guatemala’s civil war and has recognized its involvement in the wars that overtook the region. But these conflicts have had lasting consequences.

The infamous gang La Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, emerged in the 1980s in Los Angeles among immigrants from El Salvador fleeing the violence the U.S. had helped create. It formed as a response to local U.S. gang culture, according to The Wire, and grew to include Guatemalans, Hondurans, and others from the region.

When the U.S. approved the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act” in 1996, thousands of convicted criminals were deported to Central America. This brought gangs like MS-13 into the region. Over the past fifteen years, gangs have taken over both rural and urban areas across North Central America, setting up roadblocks in poor neighborhoods and imposing their own law. People living in Central America’s Northern Triangle are experiencing violence comparable to a war-zone.

Last June, Jeff Sessions, U.S. Attorney General at the time, ordered U.S. immigration courts to stop granting asylum to victims of gang violence and domestic abuse. Meanwhile, police in migrants’ home countries are often ill-equipped to deal with these issues. If police aren’t already in business with the local gangs, it’s likely that gang members’ outnumber police capacity.

“Not to mind that they have fled violence that I can not even conceive of, when I speak with them about the scariest day in their life, the worst thing that ever happened to them…With striking and shocking consistency, folks describe their arrival at the U.S. border.”

At the Global Philanthropy Forum, Mr. Ryan reflected on his conversations with migrants at the U.S. border, “Not to mind that they have fled violence that I cannot even conceive of, when I speak with them about the scariest day in their life, the worst thing that ever happened to them…With striking and shocking consistency, folks describe their arrival at the U.S. border.” He described how it is not the physical pain or deprivation at the border that causes this trauma, but the destruction of the image of the U.S. as a beacon of freedom and democracy. “Our new Ellis Island is a detention center,” said Mr. Ryan.

“Our new Ellis Island is a detention center.”

The U.S. has taken a step back from its role as a  purveyor of democratic values and promoter of human rights around the world and nowhere is that more clear than on its own southern border. While the United Nations has denounced the treatment of migrants at the border, the U.S. has stopped cooperating with UN investigators on potential human rights violations. It has become the work of independent human rights watchdogs and the American public to hold the government to account.

Public outcry played an instrumental role in ending the family separation policy, but the problems at the border haven’t been solved. Americans must continue to demand their government abide by international law in affording migrants their right to claim asylum, cooperate with the UN, and end the cycle of violence on the border.

Categories
Human Rights
Claire McMahon

Claire is a researcher at a non-profit in San Francisco which is dedicated to engaging the public in a broad range of international affairs issues. Previously, she worked in Nepal where she conducted a study on women's workloads and the gendered division of labor in the context of community forestry. She received her MSc in International Development from the University of Edinburgh in 2017 and has bachelor’s degrees in international policy and anthropology. Claire is particularly interested in advocating for gender equity and human rights, whether that's in her own backyard or within a global context.
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