By Curt Goering, executive director, Center for Victims of Torture
It was 1948. In the aftermath of the holocaust 70 years ago today, 48 UN member states led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt convened in Paris to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time, the world had acknowledged that there are basic rights that apply to everyone, just by virtue of their being human. The Declaration’s preamble stated that “the inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
The 30 articles listed in the Declaration are not privileges extended for good behavior. They are entitlements, and they cannot be taken away. Some of the articles are nevertheless more controversial than others, and continue to be widely disputed, from Article 24 (the right to rest and leisure) to Article 16 (the right to consensual marriage). Others still — unfortunately including Article 5 (the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) — enjoy near-unanimous formal support, but are increasingly honored more in the breach than in the observance.
The Declaration was significant for broadly outlining the entitlements of all people; however, it was not a legally binding document. And it would remain a Declaration, or a statement of intent, until individual governments adapted the Declaration’s articles and turned them into a convention. This required internal consensus within UN member states, whose governing bodies then had to sign and ratify the convention through their own parliamentary processes.
In the U.S., the first declaration to become a convention was the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. This groundbreaking legal document, and later protocol relating to the status of refugees in 1967, proved key in developing current U.S. standards and laws regarding refugees — as was the Declaration’s Article 14: The right to seek, and to enjoy in other countries, asylum from persecution.
Today we face the world’s worst global displacement crisis on record. We are simultaneously witnessing a growing international trend among governments to make it more difficult for asylum seekers to find safety in their countries. This impacts thousands of people across the globe fleeing war, violence, dire economic circumstances and torture — some of whom are CVT clients. They are desperate. They are simply trying to live, and as a result, they are being punished.
In the U.S. in particular there is a very methodical shrinking — a major sustained crackdown — on protections for asylum seekers. Thousands wait at designated ports of entry at our southern border in Mexico. But because the numbers are so large and the resources (sometimes, too, the will) to process applicants are so relatively limited, only a small number — 100 per day or fewer — are allowed to apply for asylum. Even if they do make it into the U.S., they risk being detained, potentially prosecuted depending on how they entered, and separated from their families.
Meanwhile, the vulnerable individuals stuck outside our borders are exposed to horrific dangers like gang violence and trafficking. The Trump Administration at the same time continues its efforts to narrow eligibility for asylum–for instance, by making it extraordinarily difficult for domestic violence and gang violence survivors to succeed on their claims. The fear and pressure mount. Some reasonably feel as if they have no choice but to cross the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry. It’s likely, then, that as more asylum seekers are forced to wait — or are otherwise turned back at ports of entry — more will continue to cross this way. But all of them are legally entitled to apply for asylum and have their claims adjudicated fairly, notwithstanding how they got here.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are many in our government who want change, and we should demand that they seek it. Here are five steps they can take towards realigning U.S. law, policy, and practice with the principles that drove Eleanor Roosevelt’s work 70 years ago to build “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations:”
First, law and policymakers must speak out against the false and discriminatory rhetoric that treats asylum seekers as criminals. Seeking political asylum isn’t a crime; it’s a right. Thousands of asylum seekers at our southern border escaped abominable circumstances in the Northern Triangle area — gang violence, death squads, rape — and under the law, if the state can’t provide protection, citizens are allowed to flee and are entitled to apply for asylum in other countries. Instead, some Trump Administration officials demonize these persecuted people, referring to them as criminals who incite violence and then use their own women and children as “human shields” for protection. Rhetoric at the highest level needs to change.
Second, there needs to be vigorous and sustained oversight into the human rights violations that persist at our southern border, followed where appropriate by legislative solutions. This includes addressing, among other issues: turnbacks at ports of entry (and the bogus lack-of-capacity claims too often used to justify them); family separation; and the above-mentioned efforts to limit asylum eligibility, particularly for people fleeing the Northern Triangle.
Third, Congress needs to provide, and government officials then need to effectively spend, sufficient funding to fairly and efficiently resettle refugees and evaluate asylum seekers claims. This includes, in particular, addressing the enormous current backlog of asylum cases. CVT’s clients are facing hearings three, four — or in the case of one client I spoke with recently — five years out. This is an outrage, and calls for a complete overhaul of the system. Instead of increasing our military presence at the border, for instance, why not double or triple the number of asylum officers? Or work towards providing access counsel at all stages of the process? Legal representation not only introduces a modicum of fairness into a process that is all but impossible to navigate for newly-arrived immigrants, but also makes immigration court proceedings more efficient.
Fourth, Congress should legislate a smart and humane immigration detention system, one that limits as much as possible the scope and length of detention. Thankfully, one such bill — the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act — has already been introduced. The bill would: eliminate the use of private prisons and county jails for civil immigration detention; require the government to adopt humane treatment standards appropriate to a civil detention context; impose robust oversight on the immigration detention system and force much-needed transparency; eliminate the use of mandatory detention; and prohibit detaining torture survivors (among other vulnerable groups) at all unless the government shows that placement in a community-based supervision program is unreasonable or impracticable.
Fifth, our government needs to put meaningful attention and resources towards addressing the root causes of the global immigration crisis. Many of the people at our southern border have walked thousands of miles — some barefooted, some injured — from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. It is essential to consider why they would risk leaving their homes and in many cases, their loved ones, to walk such a great distance in such dire conditions if they weren’t incredibly desperate. We must remember that they decided their future is more hopeful embarking on this dangerous journey, and later confronting inevitable chaos at the U.S. border, than it is to stay in their country. That is the problem we need to focus on fixing.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human rights. It’s a good day to begin.