UN condemns Trump policy on child separation as abuse

Laura Bush says practice ‘cruel’, while Melania Trump urges governing ‘with a heart’

Several Democratic lawmakers from New York and New Jersey have visited a detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to meet with detainees who were separated from their children at at the southwest border in the US. Video: Reuters

 

The United Nations’ top human rights official on Monday weighed into the mounting furor over the Trump administration’s policy of separating unauthorised immigrant children from their parents, calling for an immediate halt to a practice he condemned as abuse.

US immigration authorities have detained almost 2,000 children in the past six weeks, which may cause them irreparable harm with lifelong consequences, said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights. He cited an observation by the president of the American Association of Pediatrics that locking the children up separately from their parents constituted “government-sanctioned child abuse”.

“The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable,” said Mr al-Hussein. His intervention added to an escalating chorus of condemnation from people across the political spectrum in the United States, including former first lady Laura Bush, who called the separations “cruel” and “immoral.” But Mr al-Hussein risked retaliation by the Trump administration, widely believed to be pondering pulling out from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

US president Donald Trump turned to Twitter early Monday to blame Democrats for the current situation: “Why don’t the Democrats give us the votes to fix the world’s worst immigration laws?” he wrote. “We don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us!” he added in a separate tweet. The high commissioner’s office had already condemned the practice of separating children from their parents this month, calling it a serious violation of children’s rights and international law. That drew an angry rebuke from US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley who accused the agency of ignorance and hypocrisy.

Impatience with UN

Her response illustrates the administration’s deepening impatience with UN human rights mechanisms that Ms Haley has accused of “chronic bias” against Israel and of overlooking the abuses of major human rights violators. Diplomats from the US mission in Geneva attended the start of a new council session Monday, but rights advocates and envoys of other countries continued to ask how long the Americans would remain there.

Leading figures among Democrats and Republicans have demanded that Mr Trump halt his administration’s practice as the issue further polarised the already divisive immigration debate in Washington.

A number of Republican politicians in addition to the former first lady, a conservative newspaper and a one-time adviser to Mr Trump joined Democrats in condemning the family separations.

The administration pushed back, arguing that it was just enforcing the law, a false assertion that Mr Trump has made repeatedly.

The issue took on special resonance on Father’s Day as Democratic politicians visited detention facilities in Texas and New Jersey in protest at the separations. And the House prepared to take up immigration legislation this week.

Photographs of children warehoused without their parents in facilities, including a converted Walmart store, have inflamed passions and left the administration on the defensive.

Mr Trump did not directly address the family separations on Sunday, saying only that Democrats should work with Republicans on border security legislation. “Don’t wait until after the election because you are going to lose!” he wrote on Twitter.

Melania Trump

But Melania Trump weighed in, saying she “hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together”. The First Lady “believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with a heart”, she said. By laying responsibility for the situation on “both sides” Mrs Trump effectively echoed her husband’s assertion that it was the result of a law written by Democrats. In fact, the administration announced a zero-tolerance approach this spring, leading to the separations.

However, Mrs Bush spoke out forcefully against the practice in a rare foray into domestic politics, comparing it to the internment of Japanese-Americans during the second World War. “I live in a border state,” she wrote in a guest column in The Washington Post. “I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”

‘Traumatising to the children’

She attributed the situation entirely to the administration. “The reason for these separations is a zero-tolerance policy for their parents, who are accused of illegally crossing our borders,” she wrote. Republican senator for Maine Susan Collins condemned the separations on Sunday, except in cases where there is evidence of abuse or another good reason.

“What the administration has decided to do is to separate children from their parents to try to send a message that, if you cross the border with children, your children are going to be ripped away from you,” she said on Face the Nation on CBS. “That is traumatising to the children, who are innocent victims. And it is contrary to our values in this country.”

Former president Bill Clinton also spoke out, suggesting that Mr Trump was using the widely condemned practice to leverage Democrats into accepting immigration limits in legislation they would otherwise oppose. “These children should not be a negotiating tool,” he wrote on Twitter.

“And reuniting them with their families would reaffirm America’s belief in & support for all parents who love their children.”

Hillary Clinton retweeted that message, adding, “YES!” Contrary to the president’s public statements, no law requires families to necessarily be separated at the border. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ zero tolerance announcement this spring that the government will prosecute all unlawful immigrants as criminals set up a situation in which children are removed when their parents are taken into federal custody.

Previous administrations made exceptions to such prosecutions for adults travelling with minor children. But the Trump administration has said it will not do so. While the president has blamed Democrats, his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, told the New York Times last week that it was “a simple decision by the administration to have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry, period”.

‘No separation policy’

Secretary of homeland security Kirstjen Nielsen has rejected responsibility for the separations. “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border,” she said. “Period.” She made a distinction between asylum seekers who try to enter the country at designated points of entry and those who arrive at other parts of the border. “For those seeking asylum at ports of entry, we have continued the policy from previous Administrations and will only separate if the child is in danger, there is no custodial relationship between ‘family’ members, or if the adult has broken a law,” she wrote on Twitter.

But there have been reports of people arriving at the ports of entry asking for asylum and being taken into custody and some of the designated ports are not accepting asylum claims. In those cases, migrants sometimes cross wherever they can and, because it is not an official border station, are detained even though they are making a claim of asylum. Many would-be asylum applicants do not know where official ports of entry are.

Mr Trump has said in recent days that Democrats should agree to his panoply of immigration measures, including full financing for a border wall and revamping the system of legal entry to the country. In effect making clear that any legislation addressing family separation must also include his priorities.

A top adviser to Mr Trump said on Sunday that the president was not using the family separation as leverage to force Democrats to come to the table on other policy disputes, rebutting an unnamed White House official quoted by the Washington Post. “As a mother, as a Catholic, as somebody who has got a conscience, and wouldn’t say the junk that somebody said, apparently, allegedly, I will tell you that nobody likes this policy,” said Kellyanne Conway, the White House counsellor, on NBC’s Meet the Press. “You saw the president on camera that he wants this to end, but everybody has, Congress has to act.”–New York Times