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Let's Talk Human Rights

Seeking to Restore Human Dignity on US-Mexico Border

By Alysa Medina

I attended a powerful session at the Social Practice of Human Rights Conference on “Human Rights in Central America,” moderated by UD’s Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, Miranda Hallett. Drawing on a wealth of knowledge, experts steeped in the complexities of Central American experience of migration discussed this current political moment and the movement needed to address these complex issues. Here are my four key take-aways derived from listening to Mileydi Guilarte from Counterpart El Salvador, Jeanne Rikkers from Cristosal, and Abby Wheatley from Arizona State University.

Mileydi Guilarte from Counterpart El Salvador, Jeanne Rikkers from Cristosal, Abby Wheatley from Arizona State University, and Miranda Hallett from the University of Dayton.Mileydi Guilarte from Counterpart El Salvador, Jeanne Rikkers from Cristosal, Abby Wheatley from Arizona State University, and Miranda Hallett from the University of Dayton.

First, the situation along our border is not a national security crisis but instead a humanitarian crisis caused by various U.S. policies and practices, rooted in the political directives taken by both current and past administrations to increasingly militarize the border.  The “Prevention through Deterrence” approach is not new. It is at least a couple decades old and uses death as a way to deter people from crossing the border. The result is a “weaponized desert,” which has left a trail of border deaths counted above 7,000 migrants by authorities to potentially above 10,000 migrants by advocacy organizations accumulating since 1998 to the present. This deterrence policy is further evident through the attempts to penalize humanitarian aid workers who provide water for migrants crossing through increasingly desolate desert regions and by the increase of border patrol checkpoints, which now can be spotted as far as seventy miles away. 

Second, it seems apparent to me that both past and current presidential administrations have concentrated their border enforcement efforts on the detention of migrants recently arriving to seek asylum. This detention policy is being used as secondary deterrence policy. Evidence supporting this includes the expansion of family detention and the administration’s determination to attack the Flores settlement agreement. This agreement has been in place for over two decades and includes provisions which set limits on the length of time children can be incarcerated, requires the government to implement standards relating to the care and treatment of children, and obligates the government to place children in the “least restrictive” environment based on their age and needs. Additionally, within the past year, the Supreme Court determined that immigrants in detention no longer had the right to petition for a bond hearing every six months. Further, the location of detention centers are increasingly far from cities, making it difficult for family members to visit detained migrants or for them to obtain legal counsel. Even more concerning is that policies increasing the criminalization of border crossers are becoming more prevalent, whether through zero tolerance policies or the addition of both federal and misdemeanor charges for entry without authorization or multiple entries.

Third, I was taken by the message that a holistic solution to the humanitarian crisis is required. Rejecting the idea of a simple policy solution to the crisis, the holistic solution needs to take into consideration the historical impact of U.S. intervention in the Central American region, including U.S. exclusion of certain groups of migrants based on race. The reality is that the displacement of Central American migrants is due to various traditional push factors including, but not limited to: chronic violence, corruption, organized crime, lack of economic opportunity, political instability, but also to newer push factors such as global climate change and the growing environmental crisis facing many countries. Examining these push factors in depth will help to create a more holistic solution.

Finally, I was struck by the urgent need to reform our current asylum system, which severely limits the recognition of human suffering for migrants from this region. The interpretation of our understanding of asylum in the U.S. must be widened to include more vulnerable migrants, not further restricted as it has been consistently by adverse Board of Immigration Appeals determinations and administrative restrictions under Attorneys General appointed by President Trump. Furthermore, immigrant advocates and asylum lawyers must fight back against the current asylum system, which is plagued by the perverse demand to erode the complexity of one person’s story into a short narrative that will “win a person’s asylum case.” A reformed asylum system must see each migrant as a full person, a person who has extracted themselves at great peril and with tremendous suffering out of a region entangled in violence. Advocates must work to build comprehensive views of human families caught up in this crisis with a long term aim of helping to build power in immigrant communities. This can be done in part by creating spaces wherein migrants can tell their whole story, seek solace from others who have shared aspects of their journey, and enable themselves to become advocates for long term solutions to this humanitarian crisis. 

In conclusion, I believe that immigration activists, advocates, and attorneys must continue to respond to this issue as the humanitarian crisis that it is. We must focus on challenging the national dialogue surrounding asylum and continue to create spaces where we can share knowledge with the general population surrounding the difficult political, economic, and historical issues driving migration, while understanding the complexity of experience of migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. From these spaces and armed with a new depth of knowledge, new coalitions of immigrants and allies must urgently push forward together to demand solutions that embrace human dignity and include expanded protections for vulnerable populations both in their migratory journey and their legal pursuit of asylum.

Stay tuned! We will be featuring more reflections, photos and videos from SPHR '19.

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