Clara Long is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Senators scarcely asked John F. Kelly about immigration enforcement during his January confirmation hearing to lead the Department of Homeland Security. It was an oversight even then, given President Trump’s campaign promises to ramp up already draconian and inhumane immigration enforcement policies. Perhaps senators hoped that reasonable minds in Trump’s administration would prevail and trusted Kelly to be an “adult in the room.”
If the new administration deserved any benefit of the doubt then, it certainly doesn’t now. We have a 10-month track record of immigration enforcement practices that are as bad as promised. Now that Kelly is White House chief of staff and his deputy, Kirstjen Nielsen, has been nominated to replace him at Homeland Security, senators know what to expect. They shouldn’t give Nielsen a pass at her confirmation hearing this week.
From January to early September, Trump’s DHS deported nearly 54,000 immigrants living in the United States, a 34 percent increase over the same period last year. Despite Trump’s habit of characterizing them as criminals, a significant number have had no criminal convictions and even more have only minor infractions or convictions for immigration violations.
Senators should ask Nielsen whether she intends to continue deporting people like a 39-year-old woman Human Rights Watch recently interviewed shortly after she was deported to Mexico. Since the woman’s deportation, her 9-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, has been living with nuns at a children’s home in Laredo, Tex. “I’ve never been in jail,” the woman said of her 15 years in the United States. “I didn’t drive because I didn’t have a license. I never broke the law except by not having papers.”
Senators should ask Nielsen whether she will stop thoughtlessly ripping families apart without any serious consideration of the harm it causes. Her answer will take on even more urgency as immigrants protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals also become deportable.
Senators should ask Nielsen what she plans to do about the negative impact that immigration enforcement is having on criminal justice. How does she analyze substantial declines in crime reports, including for sexual assault, by Latino communities in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas and Houston? How would she respond to police chiefs and sheriffs who say that if immigrant crime victims fear reporting crimes to the police, it makes all communities less safe? How would she answer judges and others who have criticized immigration arrests at courthouses?
And because Trump is moving forward with plans to expand immigration detention, senators should ask Nielsen how she plans to address dangerous conditions at many immigration detention facilities around the country. A dozen people died in these centers from October 2016 through this September. Based on independent expert medical analyses, Human Rights Watch found that hazardous and subpar medical care contributed to seven of the 18 deaths in immigration detention between 2012 and 2015.
People in these facilities are also often isolated from family, lawyers and information that could help them understand their rights and plead their cases. The lack of access to fair procedures combined with poor conditions prompt many asylum seekers to give up on remaining in the United States. Martin Mendez Pineda, a Mexican journalist fleeing death threats, is among them. He returned to Mexico in May where, according to Reporters Without Borders, his life remains at grave risk. He stopped fighting his case because he faced indefinite detention in the United States while his asylum claim was pending.
Senators should ask Nielsen whether under her leadership, Homeland Security would ensure that asylum seekers are treated fairly in accordance with U.S. and international law — as well as our shared values — when they arrive at our borders.
Our research also shows that asylum seekers forced into U.S. fast-track deportation procedures are regularly sent back without fair consideration of their claims to protection. One Mexican woman, who reported being raped by gang members after she refused to turn over her teenage son, told her lawyer that she tried to seek asylum in the United States early this year. She says a border officer turned her away and told her that people persecuted because they are Christians “are the people we are giving asylum to, not people like you.”
This is not the time to rubber-stamp a Trump nominee. Senators need to know if Nielsen will take the duty of Homeland Security seriously, not only by guarding the border but also by faithfully executing laws designed to protect the most vulnerable who cross onto our soil. Before we grant Nielsen power over this administration’s immigration-enforcement machine, she must first promise to uphold the rights of immigrants.
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