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The U.S. is in serious violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As many 700 children have been separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border, some as young as one year old. We speak with ACLU border litigation lawyer Mitra Ebadolahi

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The U.N. Human Rights Office issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the U.S. government’s recently stated policy of separating immigrants and refugee children from their parents when they cross the border. Here’s what the U.N. spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani had to say.

RAVINA SHAMDASANI: There is nothing normal about detaining children. The U.S. should immediately halt this practice of separating families, and stop criminalizing what should at most be an administrative offense.

SHARMINI PERIES: The Trump administration immediately responded, with the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley calling the U.N.’s reaction to the policy hypocritical for paying attention to the U.S.’s action, but not to those of other states. Meanwhile, President Trump claimed that if people did not like the policy, the law ought to be changed, he said. And last week he tweeted, and I quote, here: “Put pressure on the Democrats to end the horrible law that separates children from their parents once they crossed the border into the United States.” The problem is, the policy of separating children, though, was clearly stated as a new policy earlier in the month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Here’s Sessions’ announcement in early May.

JEFF SESSIONS: If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you. And that child may be separated from you, as required by law. In order to carry out these important policies, I have sent 35 prosecutors to the southwest border, and moved 18 immigration judges to the border.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, in the background, you can hear a protester during this announcement. Here’s a different angle on the same venue.

PROTESTER: Why are you here? Are you going to be separating families? Is that why you’re here? Why are you doing this? Do you have a heart? Do you have a soul? You are an evil, evil, evil man. Get out of my state. Get out of my city. You should not be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to take a closer look at the legality and the consequences of the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents is Mitra Ebadolahi. Now, she is the Border Litigation Project staff attorney with ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Mitra, I thank you so much for joining me.

MITRA EBADOLAHI: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Mitra, there is a debate about the legality of the Trump administration’s policies. Now, on one hand, the U.N. is saying that the U.S. is separating families from their children. But when you listen to Sessions there, he’s implying that these children are being smuggled in and that their law, their policy is about protecting the children from those that might be smuggling them into the country. What is really going on here?

MITRA EBADOLAHI: He’s trying to muddy the waters. There’s no factual basis for the claims that he’s making in this regard. He’s trying to detract attention from where it needs to be kept, which is that this administration is separating asylum-seeking parents from their children at our borders.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, in terms of what the U.N. has called out the U.S. for, speak to the legitimacy of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s position, here.

MITRA EBADOLAHI: So, the U.N. has correctly identified deep concerns with the zero tolerance policy that Jeff Sessions and this administration have recently announced, which is fueling the new policy of family separation. These are two separate policies. It’s important to have clarity about that. They interact because what’s happening is the Department of Homeland Security has adopted a policy under this administration, again, not pursuant to any law, and in fact contrary to both federal and international law, to deter asylum seekers from seeking asylum in the United States by separating families, by taking children away from their parents, when they properly present themselves, as is required by our domestic law, at ports of entry to seek asylum.

Separate from that is the second policy, a parallel policy which Jeff Sessions has announced, to prosecute people with, with no limit. Meaning that there’s no prosecutorial discretion, there’s no prioritization. People are being prosecuted throughout the border region. And many of those people, as well, may be seeking asylum. They may not have presented an actual port of entry. And when that happens, their children are also taken away from them.

The U.N. statement today correctly says that the use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles. The child’s best interests should always come first. And experts have been talking for weeks now about the long-term consequences, the long-term adverse traumatic consequences, of taking a child away from his or her parent or legal guardian. And that’s, this policy is directly opposed to the best interests of any child. We have reports from our partner organizations throughout the border region that children as young as a year are being taken away from their parents. Children With disabilities. Most recently I heard the story of a 6-year-old blind child who was taken away from the parent. And those are the individuals were being targeted by this policy, which is a Trump administration vehicle to undermine U.S. domestic law and our asylum system.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, when it is alleged that the Trump administration is applying this law in order to deter people from showing up at the border and seeking asylum, is that what you’re finding? And is it effective?

MITRA EBADOLAHI: So there is a new report issued today by the Vera Institute that shows that prosecution is certainly not an effective deterrent to the lawful process of seeking asylum. People who are seeking asylum are fleeing tremendously difficult circumstances. People who have been forced to leave their home countries, often with very few resources, at great personal cost, and with the threat of serious physical harm that may come to them in the journey, in order to seek safety elsewhere. And the process of separating parents from their children is not a deterrent for these people, who are already in very desperate circumstances. It just layers yet another kind of trauma on a group of people, on a population that is already marginalized and has already suffered enormously.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, Mitra, how many children do you estimate have been affected by this policy? I’ve read 700 children in the press. What, what is your tally, here?

MITRA EBADOLAHI: That’s consistent with the number that I’ve been hearing, as well. I think that it’s not been the easiest thing for folks to get a clear and accurate number. This is a situation that has unfolded rapidly. And I do have a sense from partner organizations that the numbers keep jumping. For example, the Florence Immigration Project in Arizona mentioned last week that they saw a significant uptick in the number of children that they were seeing who had been separated from their parents. The number will continue to grow as long as this unlawful and inhumane policy continues to be pushed by this administration.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Mitra. Now, last month I understand that the ACLU released a study of what is happening to children in detention centres. Now, this is once they are separated from their families, they are held in detention. Tell us about the research and what you found.

MITRA EBADOLAHI: So, actually, the report that we released last month on May 23 pertains to a subset of government records that we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Those documents relate to the period between 2009 and 2014. So they do not relate to the current circumstances of CBP detention. However, the report makes clear why structurally both U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other Department of Homeland Security enforcement entities, and the Department of Homeland Security’s oversight entities, including the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Office of the Inspector General, are failing to ensure that these kinds of abuses do not recur. The report, which, again, was based on government records, highlighted the ways in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, including border patrol agents, violate governing law and policy in apprehending, detaining, and then deporting unaccompanied children from the United States.

The difference here with the current story is that the children who are being taken away from their parents or legal guardian at our border now are not arriving to the United States as unaccompanied minors. There certainly are still unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States. But the family separation question is a distinct one that involves children being taken away from parents or legal guardians with whom they’ve travel to the United States. Our report focused on what kind of treatment unaccompanied children received at the hands of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

We documented a series of extreme alleged abuses, ranging from verbal abuse, such as calling immigrant children dogs, or garbage. One pregnant minor was told that her child would, quote, contaminate his country. Children were threatened with rape and death. We had evidence from these documents that children were shot with tasers, underweight children were shot with tasers, which is contrary to agency policy and is an excessive use of force. We have allegations of children being run over by patrol vehicles, causing serious injuries. There are allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct. For example, one 16 year old minor child was subjected to a search in which agents forcibly spread her legs and touched her genitals so hard that she screamed in pain. There is, there are numerous documents that show that children were being detained in excess of the 72-hour period allowed under the law for CBP detention, in freezing cold, overcrowded, unsanitary cells, where they were not provided with adequate or edible food. There are documents that show inedible, spoiled food, frozen food being given to the children. Children not being able to drink the water they were given because it smelled so strongly of chlorine. Children being denied necessary medical care. Children who arrived in the detention facilities with medication having that medication taken away from them. The list goes on and on.

And that report is available on our website, and we’ve also published the government documents on which we based the report.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, Mitra, ACLU has recently filed a class action suit to force the administration to reunify the families. Tell us about the status of that case, and, and how successful you think it might be.

MITRA EBADOLAHI: We are waiting right now for a decision from the federal district court in San Diego on that class action, which is Ms. L v. ICE. That case was argued last month, and we are awaiting a decision. We argue in that case that the family separation policy is violates the U.S. Constitution, and we hope that the district court judge agrees with us.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Mitra, I thank you so much for joining us today.


SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Sharmini Peries was a co-founder of TRNN, where she harnessed the power and expertise of civil society institutions. Previously, Sharmini was Economic and Trade Adviser to President Hugo Chavez at Miraflores and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela. Prior to that she served as the executive director of the following institutions: The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System, The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. She also managed the Human Rights Code Review Task Force in Ontario, Canada. She holds a M.A. in Economics from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her Ph.D. studies in Social and Political Thought at York University remain incomplete (ABD).