Migrants have been detained in the US since the 1980s, but are conditions getting worse?

In this Sunday, June 17, 2018 photo provided by US Customs and Border Protection, people who were taken into custody for illegal entry into the United States sit in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas.
In this Sunday, June 17, 2018 photo provided by US Customs and Border Protection, people who were taken into custody for illegal entry into the United States sit in one of the cages at a facility in McAllen, Texas. (AP)

How did they begin?

Migrant detentions in the US began in the 1980s on Ellis Island, a New York City landmark famous for being the main gate way into America for generations of immigrants. 

Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million immigrants entered the country through the island.

The migrants who entered during that period and their descendants make up around 40 percent of the US population today. 

All detention centres on Ellis Island were eventually shut down, but today the US runs some 200 detention facilities, local jails, juvenile detention centres, field offices and a family residential centre, which serve the same purpose: to discourage migrants from settling in the US. 

The number of immigrants in detention facilities increased dramatically in 1996, as new immigration laws under US President Bill Clinton made mandatory detentions official.

The US also funds detention centres in other countries to ensure asylum seekers do not reach the US.

In 2003, US President George W Bush established Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which was placed under the remit of the Department of Homeland Security.

In 2009, the US stopped detaining large families after public outcry, but the practice has since made a comeback.

Why is the US locking immigrants up?

The US holds people who are accused of crossing the border illegally ostensibly to determine whether they are entitled to remain in the country. 

US detention policy continued to harshen under the rule of former president Barack Obama. Following a dramatic surge in migrants from Central American countries, Obama adopted a policy of detaining all female-headed families, including children in 2014. 

While Obama’s policy was more focused on the deportation of migrants who committed crimes, the Trump administration is focused on deporting immigrants, who they describe as “illegal aliens,” including ones who have never committed a crime. 

The number of migrants crossing the US southern border reached its highest in February when 76,000 people crossed the border without authorisation. Many asylum seekers say they are fleeing violence, often drug related, in Central American countries.

Under Trump, the US has employed a “zero tolerance” policy towards parents and children crossing the border without permission. In June 2018, the US administration announced it was adopting a family separation policy, which meant thousands of migrant children were split up from their families.

The separation of families policy was reversed in June 2018, after a senior official at the Department of Justice, Gene Hamilton said  that the Department of Homeland Security can’t detain children who came with their parents for more than 20 days. 

But the damage was done for many families. After separating thousands of immigrant children from their parents, the government said it may take two years to identify who was separated.

In April this year, Trump said his administration is strongly considering releasing detained migrants and sending them to sanctuary cities. 

Is seeking asylum unlawful?

No. According to international law, seeking asylum isn’t a crime, it’s a right. The International Human Rights Declaration states, “Everyone has the rights to seek and to enjoy in the other countries asylum from persecution.”

 US courts are entitled to oversee each migrant’s asylum case before determining if they qualify asylum or if they will be deported. But that process takes very long with lack of staffing and resources to address each case. But reports suggest that immigrants are not always given the chance to proceed with their asylum application and face deportation even if they face persecution in their home country.

Why is migrant detention criticised?

The use of migrant detention centres has lead to a number of human rights violations, according to rights organisations. Often treated like criminals during detention, the migrants face a variety of civil liberties violations, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says. These violations include sexual and physical abuse, exploitative labor practices and inadequate medical care.

In the most recent case in Texas on Tuesday, a 16-year-old unaccompanied Guatemalan boy died in government custody after he tried to seek medical treatment related to headaches. The boy was the third child to die in Border Patrol custody since December. 

Since March 2010, ICE has reported a total of 82 deaths in adult immigration detention, Human Rights Watch said.

The rights organisation also said there was a  “troubling failure to provide adequate mental health care, as well as overuse of solitary confinement for people with serious mental health conditions.”

Source: TRT World