What would the State Department’s annual country reports on human rights say if the United States was included among the countries for which human rights practices are reported? As the Trump Administration moves through its second year, that question has gained increasing relevance.
The report might well begin:
The United States is a constitutional federal republic. In a free multiparty election held in November 2016, Republican nominee Donald J. Trump won the Presidential election with 306 electoral votes to his Democratic rival’s 232 electoral votes. The Republican Party won majorities in the House of Representatives with 241 seats and in the Senate with 52 seats.
That would be relatively straightforward. By itself, nothing would seem to be amiss. The republican experiment launched with the Constitution’s completion on September 17, 1787 would appear to be intact.
But if one went beyond the description of the U.S. government and the 2016 election, there would be a disturbing finding. The report would note that the United States had carried out human rights abuses and that those who were responsible for such abuses were not held accountable. The report would continue:
The most significant human rights issues were documented reports in which a rapidly growing number of children of undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers were forcibly separated from parents and siblings. Parents were also deported while separated from their children. There was no accountability for officials who authorized the violations or personnel who carried them out. The federal government took no meaningful steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish them.
The United States had taken a large step toward engaging in the kind of human rights abuses for which it once criticized the world’s illiberal states. This indictment sounds harsh. Much worse, it is real. On May 7, 2018, Amnesty International reported:
The US government must stop separating asylum-seeking parents from their children and denying them access to asylum procedures through prolonged detention, said Amnesty International today in response to reports of the US Department of Homeland Security’s adoption of a draconian family separation policy that will apply to anyone who presents themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border. The policy was also referenced today in remarks by Attorney General Sessions.
“The idea that children can be protected by tearing them away from their families defies all sense of logic and humanity,” said Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “These are children who have already suffered the trauma of violence and persecution in their native countries and the arduous journey to seek safety. Why in the world would the US government institute a policy that would compound their distress by separating them from their families, claiming it’s for their own good? This is a monstrous policy that flies in the face of human rights, and should be rescinded immediately.”
On June 17, 2018, The New York Times reported:
As the federal government continues to separate families as part of a stepped-up enforcement program against those who cross the border illegally, the authorities say that parents are not supposed to be deported without their children. But immigration lawyers say that has happened in several cases. And the separations can be traumatic for parents who now have no clear path to recovering their children…
In some cases, parents and children have gone weeks without being able to communicate with one another and without knowing one anothers’ whereabouts. From April 19 to May 31, a total of 1,995 children who arrived with 1,940 adults were separated from their parents, according to administration officials.
No matter the rationale used to justify it, this practice is a flagrant and wholly unnecessary human rights abuse. It is a practice that contravenes Article 9 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child that proclaims, “States Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child.” To date, there is no credible evidence that the Trump Administration’s practice is in the “best interests” of the affected children.
Going forward, a big question concerns whether the Trump Administration’s practice of separating families might prove to be a “gateway” to even larger abuses. The risk of such injustices would likely increase if the Trump Administration’s amoral family separation policy is not vigorously contested by the Congress. After all, restraint does not exist in a nation whose leaders set and execute policy in the absence of a moral compass. In such nations, concepts such as the separation of powers and rule of law become empty rhetoric.
Following the end of World War II, the United States was among the world’s loudest and most persistent advocates for human rights. Consistent with that advocacy, on December 10, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation marking “Human Rights Day, Bill of Rights Day, and Human Rights Week.” In doing so, he explained:
Today we renew our allegiance to those human rights which all free men cherish and which we Americans, in particular, hold so dear. It’s love of freedom that binds a people who are so richly diverse. It unites us in purpose, and it makes us one nation. At birth, our country was christened with a declaration that spoke of self-evident truths, the foremost of which was that each and every individual is endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. And our creed as Americans is that these rights—these human rights—are the property of every man, woman, and child on this planet and that a violation of human rights anywhere is the business of free people everywhere.
Reagan declared that human rights belonged to “every man, woman, and child on this planet.” He did not suggest that they were the exclusive privilege of politically-favored individuals or groups.
The explosive scaling up of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy demonstrates that human rights is not the “business” of the current Administration. Instead, the Trump Administration routinely denies fundamental rights to pursue its immigration-related policy goals.
Its breaking up of families is the kind of misconduct that should outrage the consciences of all good people. Its a practice that should stir a historically unproductive Congress to action. In the weeks ahead, assuming that human rights still matter to the nation’s elected representatives, Congress should develop and adopt legislation that prohibits family separations, requires reunification of the separated families, provides a measure of compensation for the harm that had been inflicted on the separated families, and establishes significant criminal penalties for those who authorize family separations and those who carry out such practices.
Doing so would reaffirm that the United States still believes that all people possess basic inalienable rights that no government can legitimately deny them. Inaction, though, would signal that the United States under the Trump Administration and the current Congress risks becoming an illiberal state in which even the most basic rights are continually threatened.