Earlier this week the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a thematic hearing on the “Human Rights Situation of Migrant and Refugee Children and Families in the United States.” A broad national coalition of advocacy groups and legal service providers, led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Transnational Law Clinic, prepared and presented testimony and recommendations to the Commission focused on the detention of immigrant children and families.

This is not the first time that the Commission has addressed the issue of the detention of children and families in the United States. Indeed, in July 2015, the Commission issued a report on Refugees and Migrants in the United States: Families and Unaccompanied Children. This report recommended an end to “arbitrary and automatic detention” of families and urged the use of alternatives to detention.

The hearing began with Sarah Paoletti, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s clinic, introducing the speakers and reading testimony from an asylum-seeking mother detained at the Berks detention center with her young daughter. Clara Long, of Human Rights Watch, explained the expansion of the use of summary removal proceedings since 2005, including its application to arriving families in 2014. She also shared her research and investigation into interviews by Customs and Border Patrol officials, who often fail to ask questions about an individual’s fear of return to their country of origin, or, the fear goes unrecorded, leading to absurd transcripts of interviews, such as an eleven-day-old baby stating his intention to enter the United States to work in Kansas.

Denise Gilman of the University of Texas emphasized that detention of children should be the exception, not the norm. Professor Gilman highlighted the arbitrariness of government decision-making regarding whether or not to detain a specific family. She further underscored the reality that family detention often results in the separation of family members and that even short-term detention can cause mental health problems in children. She emphasized that mothers are routinely released only if subject to invasive electronic monitoring and are then put on “rocket dockets,” undermining an individual’s ability to find legal counsel to assert their legal claim. Finally, Professor Gilman alluded to the recent home raids on Central American families, leaving immigrant communities living in fear.

Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission delivered the Petitioners’ closing remarks, urging the Commission to request monitoring of conditions within family detention centers, to conduct a follow up visit, and to call upon the United States to respond to the recommendations contained within Commission’s 2011 and 2015 reports. She also emphasized the need for humane conditions, an end to summary removal proceedings, access to counsel throughout the process, and the use of community-based alternatives to detention.

The U.S. response was led by Michael Fitzpatrick, Interim Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States. While Mr. Fitzpatrick emphasized that the U.S. is a proud nation of immigrants and values their contributions to the economy, culture, and our social fabric, he simultaneously stressed the sovereign right to control admissions to the United States and to expel individuals from the border. Mr. Fitzpatrick stressed the government’s comprehensive strategy for engagement in Central America, including significant funding to work with partner governments to advance prosperity, governance, and to address the security concerns that prompt migration. He hailed the in-country refugee and parole program and the government’s stated plans to partner with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to expand refugee processing in the region as steps forward in addressing the humanitarian crisis.

Mary Giovagnoli, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Immigration Policy within the Department of Homeland Security, then responded. She declined to comment on many concerns raised by the Petitioners as they are “the subject of ongoing litigation,” alluding, presumably, to the Flores appeal at the Ninth Circuit. Commission President MacCaulay questioned whether the government works together with the petitioners, and also inquired into the level of education and training of CBP officers. Esmerelda A. Troitiño, the Rapporteur on Children, stressed that where children are concerned, profound human rights are implicated and governments, authorities, and organizations have a responsibility to act in the best interests of the child. Her colleague, Enrique Gil Botero, stressed that the U.S. is obligated, under the American Declaration, to ensure human rights for all people under its authority. The President concluded by emphasizing that where children are involved the right balance must be struck. She expressed her hope that with political will and with the Commission’s assistance, her hope was to “move things forward.”

Let’s hope that the U.S. government is receptive to the Commission’s recommendations and that moving things forward brings an end, once and for all, to the mass detention of immigrant children and families.

Photo by David Amsler.