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Put Human Rights at the Center of Immigration Policy

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Over the past several days, our office and others providing legal services to immigrants and refugees have been inundated with calls from the press and people wanting to help the immigrant children they have seen in the media.

Although the plight of these children and their families has been thrust into the mainstream by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies, detaining families with children arriving at U.S. borders is nothing new in the United States. As recently as 2014, in an effort to deter the increasing number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, the Obama administration opened family detention centers, incarcerating large numbers of immigrant and refugee families with children indefinitely, until a successful 2016 legal challenge led to the Ninth Circuit Flores v. Lynch decision holding, in part, that children under 18 could not be incarcerated for more than 20 days.

It has been well documented over the years that family separation and incarceration are not deterrents, especially for those fleeing for their lives. This is true not only for those arriving on the U.S. – Mexican border, but throughout the world where people cannot gain protection from their own governments. Unfortunately, present-day policymakers have ignored this reality. Post World War II, despite global political fractures, the world recognized the need for an international framework that would protect those fleeing violence and persecution. The United States played a central role in drafting the 1951 Refugee Convention, which places the obligation on individual countries for protecting and assisting refugees. Under this scheme, violence or the threat of violence triggers international protection. Although imperfect, the convention is based on the underlying principle of “non-refoulement,” long recognized in international law, meaning that a person should not be returned to any country where they are likely to face persecution, ill treatment, or torture.

As our government adopts increasingly harsh responses to immigrants and refugees, it encourages actors across the political spectrum to retreat to siloed responses and a discourse that devolves into debating the least inhumane ways to detain asylum seekers. We have become locked in a downward spiral of demonizing one another, losing sight of the fact that in doing so, we effectively silence immigrant and refugee voices and condemn them to an ever-shifting landscape of court decisions determining their fate because Congress lacks the political courage to act. We as citizens also are complicit by not insisting lawmakers step up to their responsibility to create an immigration framework grounded in fundamental human rights.

If people really want to help immigrants and their children, we must begin by taking action to forge a human rights-centered – versus political – legal framework for immigration that incorporates national and international human rights norms. We must have the courage to challenge ourselves to reach across divides, and to educate ourselves about fundamental human rights principles underlying the recognition and protection of migrants and refugees. This means stepping up and taking responsibility at the local, national and international level to elevate our voices in unison with the marginalized and accompany them to ensure access to, and enforcement of, basic human rights. Isn’t that what our country is supposed to be about?

Lisa LeSage is the executive director of Immigration Counseling Service, Oregon’s only independent nonprofit law firm serving immigrants since 1978, with the state’s only program representing unaccompanied minors and a full time anti trafficking program.

This post originally appeared in The Oregonian.