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Last week in Geneva, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe recognized her need to defend immigrants' rights. In response to a landmark recent report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants François Crépeau, the Ambassador called for nations to defend the rights of all migrants, regardless of status, and especially those who are particularly vulnerable, such as women, children, and victims of human trafficking.

In his report, Crépeau urged the government to uphold fair and humane treatment of detained immigrants and to shift immigration enforcement practices to favor alternatives to detention. The report was the first comprehensive study of immigration detention practices worldwide. 

Immigrants in the United States frequently experience gross human rights violations, particularly at the hands of the federal immigration enforcement and detention system.

Take the case of Martín. A Mexican drug cartel recruited Martín when he was 12 and forced him to carry drugs into the United States, threatening to kill him if he did not comply. When Martín was 17, U.S. Border Patrol caught him and put him in an adult correctional facility in Texas. Even though the Office of Refugee Resettlement determined Martín was a victim of human trafficking, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) transferred him to an adult detention center rather than to a facility appropriate for youth. Even after significant advocacy by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), ICE refused to release Martín because he had a felony conviction for the drug trafficking in which he was forced to participate.

Among their recommendations, the Special Rapporteur and Ambassador Donohoe called for states to implement better screening mechanisms to identify trafficking victims and unaccompanied minors. Most immigration detention facilities in the United States are located in remote, isolated areas where immigrants have little access to the outside world, much less to legal counsel. It is often difficult to reach these facilities, and difficult to communicate with anyone detained inside. Even when the government identifies especially vulnerable individuals, like Martín, it does not always ensure their protection. The government never should have detained Martín in an adult detention center. Unlike most people in detention, Martín found a lawyer who helped him get released. But it should not require heroics to win the release of a person whose life is endangered by unnecessary detention. The government’s default should be to release individuals who are at risk in detention.

Another NIJC client, Raquel, experienced inhumane treatment at an Illinois jail where immigration authorities refused to acknowledge that her detention put her in danger. A transgender woman who fled persecution in Mexico, Raquel was physically assaulted, placed in solitary confinement, and verbally harassed. A year after her release, Raquel continued to suffer emotional trauma from her experiences in detention.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) would have gone a long way to protect Raquel from abuse. The Obama administration announced in May that the law’s protections should be extended to all people in federal custody, including immigrants in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody. While President Obama must hold DHS accountable to implement PREA regulations quickly, alternatives to detention are a much more appropriate solution, as the Special Rapporteur and Ambassador Donohoe advocate.

Every day, my colleagues at NIJC meet people like Martín and Raquel, whose rights are denied and humanity ignored in the immigration detention system. If the Obama administration is serious about its commitment to protecting vulnerable immigrants, implementing Ambassador Donohoe’s recommendations would be a good place to start.


Julia Toepfer is the marketing and communications coordinator for Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center.

Photo courtesy of United States Mission Geneva via Flickr/Creative Commons