Amanda DiPaolo is an associate professor of human rights at St. Thomas University in Frederiction N.B..
The Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their families seeking asylum along the U.S.-Mexico border shows why it’s necessary that the Trudeau government ends the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States.
The agreement requires refugee and asylum seekers to request protection in the first safe country in which they arrive. Under Canadian law, the United States is the only country designated as a safe third country, but this is not an automatic designation – the U.S. government is supposed to have its human rights record under continual review by the Canadian government. There were calls to end the agreement in January, 2017, when the Trump administration implemented its travel and immigration ban. We must renew those calls, given the crisis unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border.
According to the Canadian government’s website, the United States meets a high standard for the protection of human rights because it is an open democracy, has independent courts, a system of separation of powers, and constitutional guarantees for human rights. But what happens when there is an administration in place that sidesteps these protections?
According to multiple reports, nearly 2,000 children entering the U.S. for the purposes of claiming asylum between April and May have been separated from their families and are being held at detention centres. While the Trump administration claims this policy is a deterrent to illegal immigration, it is a tactic that the American Supreme Court rejected in the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe . Justice William Brennan, writing for the court, held that a state government cannot withhold primary education to an undocumented person because it punishes the child for actions of the parent. This is exactly what the Trump administration is doing today.
The Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, claimed in a tweet on Father’s Day that only children in danger from gangs, traffickers, criminals and abusers have been separated from their families. But family members not involved in criminal activity are also being considered in that category. The suggestion that families seeking asylum are breaking the law because they are crossing between official ports of entry is false. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, under United States law, you may seek asylum no matter how you entered the country, at an official port of entry or otherwise.
No one knows what the effects of this trauma will be on these youth, but the human rights abuses are grotesque. According to media reports, minors are being held in metal cages, given foil blankets and, in many cases, without any visual stimuli in the format of books or toys. In some cases, parents are told their children will be taken for a bath but are not returned. Teenagers in cages are required to care for the younger children, including diaper changes. At at least one detention centre, staff are not allowed to console, lift or even touch the children, no matter how much agony or fear the child may express. Some children being held are still breastfeeding.
This dehumanization of immigrants has been ongoing since Mr. Trump was elected, and now the Trudeau government needs to acknowledge that the United States is not a safe third country and end the agreement that has been in force since 2004. Doing so would make migrants coming to Canada safer, too, by removing the need to cross at remote border points in often perilous weather conditions.
The onus is on the Trudeau government to ensure national policies conform to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If an asylum seeker enters Canada after entering the United States first and is sent back under the Safe Third Country Agreement, the potential exists for the claimant’s Charter rights (to which they are entitled as asylum seekers) to be violated, specifically Section 7’s guarantee to security of the person.
International relations between Canada and the United States may be at historic lows given the impending trade war and NAFTA negotiations, but the Trudeau government cannot allow economic concerns to overshadow the need to champion human rights. Canada is supposed to be a leader in this area. The government must do more than talk the talk. It must also walk the walk or risk becoming complicit in the Trump administration’s dehumanizing policies.