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Rights and Justice

Human Rights Don’t End at Borders

Human rights don’t end at borders, and they don’t depend on documentation. Yet current U.S. policy and practice don’t guarantee certain basic rights for undocumented immigrants. With widespread support for immigration reform, though, we have a chance to build critical protections into future law. With so many options, which protections should we focus on?

Migrants to any country deserve the right to family. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights points this out explicitly, affirming that the “family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” And yet under current U.S. law and practice, families are torn apart every day.

When parents are detained on suspicion of an immigration violation, it may be days before they have access to a phone, leaving them unable to call friends or family to arrange child care. There are countless stories of children—frequently American citizens—left waiting at their bus stop or coming home to an empty house, wondering where their parents are. In some cases, children are placed into the child welfare system and detained parents are unable to participate in the reunification plans and family court hearings that determine whether they will get their children back.  In the worst cases, these parents’ custody rights are terminated and their children are adopted by other families. There are currently more than5,000 children in the U.S. child welfare systembecause a parent has been detained or deported. Basic procedures—like guaranteeing a phone call, or allowing them to attend family court—can halt the worst of these injustices.


Women immigrants who are in detention need and deserve protection of their basic human rights. Because there are so few women detainees, they are extremely marginalized.  They may be detained far from their families.  Even when they remain nearby, they are not always provided that same services and protections as male detainees. As documented in our report “Migrant Women and Children at Risk: In Custody in Arizona,” detained women have difficulty accessing libraries, classes, outdoor space and freedom of movement. They also have medical and reproductive health needs that are not being met.

One solution is community-based alternatives to detention. Promising pilot programs exist, and they should be scaled up and expanded across the country. By and large, undocumented immigrants in detention are not criminals, and locking them up should be a last resort.

Children’s rights, too, are bound up with immigration reform. In the last few years, the number of unaccompanied minors—children crossing the border alone—has surged exponentially. Their average age has dropped precipitously. They are fleeing gang violence, abusive families and failed harvests brought on by droughts. They are being jettisoned by smugglers, left to fend for themselves in a foreign and hostile country. Young and vulnerable, they have special needs. And as their numbers have grown, this has become a major problem that needs a serious solution. The Convention on the Rights of the Child lays out children’s specific needs and rights, and has been ratified by 193 countries. It states plainly that the “best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them.”

At the Women’s Refugee Commission, we are working hard to advocate for sensible, smart immigration reform that meets the needs of women and children—and to ensure that it passes Congress and is signed into law. And there are signs of progress. In June, the U.S. Senate passed with strong bi-partisan support the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744), which provides a roadmap to citizenship for 11 undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. On October 7th, Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, H.R. 15— which is largely based on the Senate’s bill and will help to jump start the process of immigration reform in the House.

Learn more about the WRC’s work on immigration reform and write your Representative to pass immigration reform now. 


Rights and Justice