As an advocate for humane and just immigration policies, I was encouraged by Obama’s recent executive action.  Many are celebrating because it will provide millions of immigrants temporary relief from deportation and separation from loved ones in the United States.  Yet after attending the UN Committee against Torture review of the United States in Geneva and reading the Committee’s concluding observations, I gained a new perspective on Obama’s order.  Although some of the new policies should be applauded others will have devastating effects.  Unless amended, the policies likely will result in increased abuses against families, asylum seekers, and immigrants in detention and it will undermine our commitments under the Convention against Torture.  

Given the outcome of the Committee report, Obama has a rare opportunity to put his human rights rhetoric into action by re-examining his order through the lens of this review and taking immediate steps to protect the rights of immigrants to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.  Without amendments to ensure such protections, the current departures from the Convention noted by the Committee may grow more severe. 

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One example of such disturbing aspects of Obama’s order is its foreseeable impact on the tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children and families who recently came to the U.S. for refuge, having fled violence in Central America.  

The Committee noted that families are inadequately screened for asylum and some are immediately deported to their home country without being asked about fears of return.  Even if inquiries were being conducted appropriately (despite evidence they are not), the Committee expressed concern that the new USCIS standard for determining “credible fear” of asylum seekers significantly restricts those eligible for this life saving relief.  Given the degree to which government actors fail to accurately identify those qualifying for asylum, many immigrants fleeing life-threatening situations are sent back to their country despite legitimate fears of torture.  Extraditing people to a nation despite substantial grounds for believing they will be placed in danger upon return, “refoulement”, is a violation of Convention Article 3.  

Sadly Obama’s new plan fails to address ongoing inadequacies in U.S. asylum procedures, ensuring that breaches of Article 3 are likely to continue.  In fact, these abuses may increase due to Obama’s “expedited removal” policy, allowing for immediate immigrant deportation so the U.S. can send more people away more quickly. 

The Committee noted with distress the increasing number of detention beds slotted for immigrant women and children.  Immigrant detention centers, some of which are even operated by private, for-profit prison corporations, bear a striking resemblance to criminal confinement facilities and thus are entirely inappropriate for vulnerable populations such as children.  

George Tugushi, Acting Committee Chair, expressed particular concern at the growth of this family detention as “part of an aggressive deterrence strategy” to keep people from coming to the United States to escape abuses in other countries.  Indeed, official policies relying on locking up families to send a message to others running from persecution is an affront to Obama’s stated commitment to human rights.  His catch phrase, “felons, not families” is deeply misleading on numerous levels; even families remain subject to direct violations of the Convention under the new policies. 

Committee concerns about ill-treatment of immigrants to the U.S. aren’t limited to Central Americans or asylum seekers.  They extend to all immigrants living in detention.  Mandatory detention policies, deplorable confinement conditions, and cruel treatment against detainees are areas where the U.S. again falls short under the Convention.  The Committee recommended the U.S. address these issues, and rightly underscored the need for "prompt, impartial and effective investigations" into all claims of abuse in detention.  Here the Committee touched on one of the most essential aspects to ending degrading treatment of immigrants - independent, reliable evaluations of detention centers to account for and correct facility practices that deviate from official, more humane policies. 

The larger firestorm over Obama’s executive order has distracted from one important issue we should all be able to agree on:  ensuring an end to torture in the United States.  Amending his order to comply with the blueprint for human rights protections provided by the Committee is an important way for Obama to show his firm commitment to ending torture in the United States. 

Lindsey is policy impact coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker faith-based organization promoting lasting peace with justice as a practical expression of faith in action and serves on the U.S. Human Rights Network Convention against Torture Taskforce.