In eight months in Tucson, I have learned much about the humanitarian crisis at our border. There are stories told in Utah, but distance is a balm. Utahns hear of deaths in the desert, detentions without trials, families fearful and torn apart, and intimidation and harm from coyotes and other human predators. Some of the loosely supervised border agents and detention guards are among those predators. The isolated examples and words heard in Utah do not scratch the surface of the reality.
The policies and practices of our harsh immigration system violate human rights: basic respect, dignity, safety and needs of individuals. Abuse and humiliation are woven into the fabric of U.S. border practices and policies. Militarization, our knee-jerk reaction to border immigration problems, has greatly contributed to U.S. human rights violations of national and international laws.
Yes, the U.S. needs secure borders, and humans need security. But the process of securing our borders has brought insecurity and death to many. The U.S. is challenged to create an immigration system and naturalization policy that are in our best interests and at the same time consistent with humanitarian values and laws. The $4.5 billion proposed for securing the border and increasing militarization will also increase human insecurity.
The systemic nature of our human rights violations has been studied and criticized by many organizations, including No More Deaths, American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Organization of American States Commission on Human Rights. The reports are available on their web sites. Repeated, systemic violations cited include:
Failure to enforce humane custody standards, with beddings, food, water and emergency medical treatment inadequate or withheld
Lack of due process
Intimidation and assault by border staff
Destruction or thievery of detainee possessions, including identification papers
Separation of families
Unsafe repatriation practices
Funneling immigrants into desert death zones
In the U.S., there is a fear, spread by ignorant and intentionally inflammatory individuals, that all unauthorized immigrants are dangerous. Even some senators, who surely know better, refer to them as "terrorists." In reality, the vast majority breaks no laws except for visa violations, and crime along the border regions in three of the four border states is lower than averages in those states. Yet fears of crime and terrorism have been used to justify turning the border into a war zone.
The greatest risk to human security is the recently proposed immigration bill, which plans to increase militarization along the border. It confuses unauthorized immigrants who otherwise are law abiding with the few who bring violence and harm. Enemies are perceived to be outside our moral boundaries, entitled to suffer or to die. The U.S. can do better. We can make our immigration practices humane, and we can train our border staff to enforce laws while treating law breakers humanely.
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According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, militarization does not focus on the crimes that endanger human security (drug crimes, human trafficking, abuse of persons along the border) but on violations of unauthorized crossing. Militarization benefits few except defense industries. It ignores root causes of border crossings and preempts long-term solutions that are more effective and less costly.
Securing borders and ensuring the human rights of those who try to cross those borders need not be mutually exclusive. Our laws, policies, and methods of enforcement (or lack of enforcement) bring harm and death. The immigration reform process must address human security as well as border security.
Kathy French is a former professor at Utah Valley University.