Sessions Proposal to Prosecute “Illegal” Entry at Southern Border Violates U.S. Treaty Commitments
Washington, D.C.—In response to comments made today by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Human Rights First cautioned that efforts to criminally prosecute those who cross the U.S. southern border that do not include protections for asylum seekers violate U.S. treaty commitments.
“Attorney General Sessions talked a lot about lawlessness this morning. But it is also lawless to violate U.S. treaty legal obligations that protect asylum seekers from penalties and prosecution due to their illegal entry or reentry,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne. “The attorney general’s conspicuous failure to mention these treaty obligations is a red flag that raises serious concerns about the Trump Administration’s intention to comply with legally-binding agreements.”
Human Rights First notes that some of the individuals and families arriving at the U.S. southern border with Mexico are seeking asylum—a lawful act. U.S. treaty commitments recognize that asylum seekers often must arrive at a country without proper documentation and therefore prohibit states from penalizing asylum seekers based on their manner of entry into a country. Moreover, asylum seekers subjected to criminal prosecutions often face greater challenges in obtaining the protection they deserve and to which they are legally entitled.
A recent Human Rights First report found that Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have in some cases ignored protections that Congress created for asylum seekers, including by turning away those seeking protection, criminally prosecuting some asylum seekers, and subjecting others to arbitrary and lengthy detentions. A report released in 2015 by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that Border Patrol refers aliens expressing fear of persecution or return to prosecution, and that these referrals may violate U.S. obligations under the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
“Today Attorney General Sessions spoke about the U.S. southern border as a hellscape, filled with ‘depravity and violence’ and ‘machete attacks and beheadings.’ But the reality is that for many asylum seekers who have journeyed to the United States to legally seek asylum, the border is a beacon of hope,” added Byrne. “Rather than stoking fear and scapegoating immigrants, the attorney general should encourage border agents to abide by U.S. laws and treaty commitments that protect those fleeing persecution from return to danger.”
Attorney General Sessions also announced the hiring of more immigration judges, a much-needed solution to the severely overburdened and understaffed immigration court system. Human Rights First has long-advocated the need for additional resources to address the growing immigration court backlog. The organization notes, however, that the Department of Justice must prioritize timely, fair, and non-politicized hirings. In order to uphold the integrity of the immigration system, the use of “rocket dockets,” which undermine access to counsel and the ability to gather evidence necessary to establish asylum eligibility, should be avoided.