United Nations Submits General Allegations to the United States for its Enforced Disappearances of Migrants

“I did not know if my daughters were alive or dead for almost a week” 

WASHINGTON – Seven immigrants’ rights organizations applaud the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) for issuing general allegations against the United States concerning the enforced disappearances of asylum seekers and migrants held in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody, interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and returned to Mexico under various border policies.

These organizations, including Al Otro Lado, Americans for Immigrant Justice, the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project (Florence Project), Haitian Bridge Alliance (HBA), Human Rights First, the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), and RAICES submitted joint reports on these practices in August and December 2023 urging the UNWGEID to consider whether these state practices constitute enforced disappearances and recommend reforms, including to create locator systems, ensure access to counsel for people in CBP and USCG custody, and to issue other recommendations.

The publication of these allegations comes as the Administration announced new border policies, including a presidential proclamation and interim final rule, which suspend entry along the southern border and bar individuals who enter between ports of entry from asylum eligibility, with limited exceptions. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also expanded its processing of credible fear claims in CBP custody to family units, potentially increasing enforced disappearances of minor children, according to UNWGEID’s allegations. 

Immigrant and asylum-seeking people and families are routinely detained by CBP or USCG officials and held in locations where, until last week, they could not be located by a public registry, are not afforded attorney or family visitation rights, and have limited access to phones or other means of communication to confirm their whereabouts. They are often held for days or, in extreme cases, weeks in these locations, incommunicado, at a critical time in which the U.S. Government is deciding their asylum case and future. 

The groups’ numerous examples of incommunicado detention of migrants and people seeking asylum in CBP custody, on board USCG ships, and at the hands of cartels coordinating with Mexican law enforcement after being returned to Mexico under U.S. border policies helped the UNWGEID reach this conclusion. 

Family separation often accompanies enforced disappearance in CBP custody. The groups documented cases of minor and adult children separated from their parents and spouses separated from each other, including pregnant women, resulting in their deportation or return to Mexico in some cases without prior contact with family members or attorneys.   

While DHS recently announced the much needed inclusion of CBP custody information in the ICE detainee locator system, which the groups urged, this reform is limited. The detainee locator identifies individuals only after 48 hours in custody, without indicating the specific CBP facility, and does not include individuals detained at sea. 

DHS recently reduced the time people seeking asylum in CBP custody receive to consult with an attorney from 24 hours to four hours before undergoing life-or-death fear screenings, while they are not yet even searchable on the detainee locator, thus rendering contact with an attorney nearly impossible.  

“AI Justice has served families whose loved ones were effectively missing for days, while actually being held in CBP or US Coast Guard custody, with no way to confirm their safety or location. The fear, uncertainty and panic that these families suffered was unnecessary, and the DHS has an obligation to ensure that individuals held in its custody have access to the means to inform their families of their whereabouts and wellbeing,” said Cindy Woods, National Policy Counsel at Americans for Immigrant Justice. “We are grateful to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances for their attention to this ongoing issue and urge the DHS to implement further changes to address these concerns.”

“Haitian Bridge Alliance thanks the Working Group for issuing the general allegations letter to the U.S. Government,” said Guerline Jozef (she/her), Executive Director at the Haitian Bridge Alliance (HBA). “The WGEID took the coalition’s reports of the lived experience of the people we serve seriously. No human should have to endure being detained by the U.S. Government on ship decks, in cells, in open air prisons–with no access to family or counsel–while crucial decisions about your rights and your lives are being made. No family member should have to experience their loved one being lost in the U.S. Government’s vast, multi-agency detention system. The new CBP locator, auspiciously released by the U.S. Government at the same time the WGEID published its general allegation letter, is a positive measure that we hope can bring some relief to people and families after 48 hours of detention. But, as the WGEID’s letter makes clear, the U.S. Government is still not close to satisfying its obligations to human rights or to norms of international law.”

“It is an outrageous assault on human rights for the U.S. government to continue to create new policies that force migrants and asylum seekers back to Mexico, a country where it is well documented that state officials hand migrants to cartels that kidnap, torture, hold for ransom, and kill them, effectively disappearing them from their family and loved ones. We have seen it under the Remain in Mexico Program, we have seen it under Title 42, and we will continue to see it under any new U.S.-Mexico agreement that leaves vulnerable protection seekers stranded in cartel territory at the hands of state agents who can profit from their misery,” said Natalie Cadwalader-Schultheis, Supervising Attorney of Al Otro Lado’s Family Reunification Program. 

“The Florence Project is grateful to the UN Working Group for putting pressure on the U.S. government’s unlawful and cruel practices, including holding asylum seekers incommunicado in CBP facilities across the U.S.-Mexico border. While we welcome the new mechanism to find people in CBP custody, this success is erased by the Biden Administration’s newest steps to bar access to asylum based on arbitrary numbers of people coming between ports.” Rocío Castañeda Acosta, Advocacy Attorney. “Our clients in Mexico report having to wait 8 months for a CBP One Appointment. Asylum seekers should not be punished for making desperate decisions and crossing between ports, it is not only inhumane but it is unlawful.” Chelsea Sachau, Managing Attorney Border Action Team. 

“The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances affirmed that incommunicado detention of migrants is indeed enforced disappearance,” said Hannah Flamm, Policy Counsel at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). “Moreover, the WGEID’s allegations against the United States come at a time when the Biden administration is enacting more and more draconian policies at the U.S. land and sea borders. These policies not only endanger the lives of people seeking safety, but in some instances constitute enforced disappearances as a result of inhumane detention practices by the U.S. government. We hope the WGEID’s allegations will help provide accountability and change.”

“The U.S. government’s continued reliance on immigrant detention and border militarization eviscerates due process and serves only to create unlawful and draconian barriers to accessing the human and legal right to seek asylum in this nation,” said Dolores K. Schroeder, CEO at RAICES. “At RAICES, we are deeply grateful to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances for recognizing that no nation is exempt from the paramount standards of accountability and transparency.”

“Human Rights First has interviewed distraught mothers separated by CBP from their young adult children and pregnant women from their husbands, at times only learning of their fate once their immediate family member had been deported or returned to likely harm in Mexico,” said Christina Asencio, Director of Research and Analysis at Human Rights First. “The United Nations Working Group’s allegations hold the U.S. government accountable for these rights violations. While the detainee locator for those in CBP custody is a positive step, the administration’s ongoing policies trample on U.S. asylum law and rely on detaining vulnerable people seeking asylum to expedite unlawful returns to potential persecution.”

The UNWGEID is comprised of five independent human rights experts on the issue of enforced disappearances tasked with directly assisting the families of disappeared persons, including by receiving reports of enforced disappearances, requesting that Governments investigate allegations of enforced disappearances, and facilitating States in realizing the rights espoused in the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances.  



Al Otro Lado, Melissa Flores, [email protected]

Americans for Immigrant Justice, Cindy Woods, [email protected] 

Florence Project, [email protected] 

Haitian Bridge Alliance, Paige Censale, [email protected] 

Human Rights First, [email protected] 

IRAP, Spencer Tilger, [email protected] 

RAICES, [email protected] 

About Human Rights First

Human Rights First is an independent advocacy and action organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals. For 40 years the organization has worked to press the U.S. government and private companies to respect human rights and the rule of law. When they fail, Human Rights First steps in to demand reform, accountability and justice. Human Rights First is based in New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles.

About Haitian Bridge Alliance

The Haitian Bridge Alliance (HBA) also known as “The BRIDGE” is a 501(c)(3) grassroots nonprofit community organization that advocates for fair and humane immigration policies and provides migrants and immigrants with humanitarian, legal, and social services, with a particular focus on Black people, the Haitian community, women and girls, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and survivors of torture and other human rights abuses.

About the Florence Project

The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides free legal and social services to adults and unaccompanied children facing immigration removal proceedings in Arizona. Serving over 24,000 immigrants every year, we deliver exceptional legal empowerment and representation and essential psychosocial support for detained adults and children. Going beyond supporting people in detention facilities, we extend crucial legal services to asylum seekers at the U.S. Mexico border and vigorously advocate for systemic and narrative change nationwide. The Florence Project envisions an immigration system in which all immigrants facing removal have access to counsel, can understand their rights, and are treated fairly and humanely. To learn more, please visit www.firrp.org and follow us on instagram

About Al Otro Lado

Al Otro Lado provides holistic legal and humanitarian support to refugees, deportees, and other migrants in the U.S. and Tijuana through a multidisciplinary, client-centered, harm reduction-based practice. They engage in individual representation, human rights monitoring, and impact litigation to protect the rights of immigrants and people seeking asylum.

About Americans for Immigrant Justice 

Americans for Immigrant Justice is a non-partisan award-winning non-profit law firm that fights for justice for immigrants through a combination of direct representation, impact litigation, advocacy and outreach.In Florida and on a national level, AI Justice champions the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children; advocates for survivors of trafficking and domestic violence; serves as a watchdog on immigration detention practices and policies; fights to keep families informed, empowered and together; and pursues redress on behalf of immigrant groups with particular and compelling claims to justice.


RAICES, formally known as the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Headquartered in Texas and with national reach, RAICES promotes migrant justice by providing legal services, social services case management, and rights advocacy for immigrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking people and families. Learn more at raicestexas.org and follow us on Instagram.

About the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP)The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) is a global legal aid and advocacy organization working to create a world where refugees and all people seeking safety are empowered to claim their right to freedom of movement and a path to lasting refuge. Everyone should have a safe place to live and a safe way to get there.


Published on June 14, 2024


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