Announcing the US withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, told the media, “I want to make it crystal clear that this step is not a retreat from human rights commitments. On the contrary, we take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights.” Haley cited a “chronic bias against Israel” as the reason for the US exit from the UNHRC. The ambassador’s statement sounds hollow in the backdrop of “mockery of human rights” happening in its very own border with Mexico.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration instituted a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy in April. The policy meant families crossing the US-Mexico border without proper authorization, including those seeking asylum, would be separated. Parents faced criminal prosecution, while their children were taken to detention centers. In less than two months since the policy went into effect, more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents. Once separated, there is no process in place for the parents and their children to communicate with each other, nor a guarantee that the family will be reunited at some time in the foreseeable future.
A gut-wrenching recording of the voices of children separated from their parents at the border was released by ProPublica. This recording intensified the national and global outrage against Trump administration’s inhuman policy of taking the children away from the parents. Unable to withstand the sustained backlash, Donald Trump signed an executive order on June 20 to stop the practice of separating families, while still maintaining the zero-tolerance policy.
While Trump’s executive order would stop families being torn asunder at the border, the plight of the migrants trying to make it across the US-Mexico border would still be terrible by any measure. Trump’s order will run into issues with the Flores agreement, the landmark 21-year-old court decision which mandates that migrant children be held in detention for no more than 20 days. The executive order does not address the fate of the 2,300 children already separated from their parents. The zero-tolerance policy is cruel, with or without separation of families. With the prospect of indefinite detention along with their children, migrant families have effectively been thrown from the frying pan into the fire.
Trump’s behavior is very much akin to that of the authoritarian dictators in the modern era. Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Augusto Pinochet had used the tactic of separating children from their parents as a way to punish dissidents and enforce obedience. It should come as no surprise that Trump, who has a fascination with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, both leaders of authoritarian regimes today, chose to emulate the actions of Stalin and Hitler in his immigration policy. Even when signing the executive order, Trump showed no real compassion by stating, “I did not like the sight of families being separated.”
Justifying the approach of tearing apart families as a deterrent to border crossings, Sessions said: “If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple. … If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child may be separated from you as required by law.” He added, “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.” Trump and Sessions have resorted to what dictators from the recent past did in order to instill fear among the less fortunate, instead of taking a balanced approach to the complex problem of immigration.