A National Shame: Human Rights Abuses at the Border

Image description: black and white photo of rows of bunk beds. Yellow text reads “human rights abuses at the border, woven teaching”

Image description: black and white photo of rows of bunk beds. Yellow text reads “human rights abuses at the border, woven teaching”

In his speech announcing his candidacy for President of the United States, Donald Trump stated:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” [1]

His comments about migrants and asylum-seekers crossing the southern border should be categorized as racist and xenophobic. Not surprisingly, his administration’s policies are in line with this dehumanizing language and have worsened the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Over the past several months, journalists, activists, and U.S. representatives have reported on the awful conditions inside the detention centers near the border. As migrants and asylum-seekers continue to make their way to the United States – many from the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) – detention centers have become overcrowded, unsanitary, and dangerous for those imprisoned inside their walls.

In a report released on July 2, 2019, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) corroborated much of the information that journalists and eyewitnesses have been reporting.[2] OIG noted that:

  • There has been a 124 percent increase in the number of people being detained from 2018 to 2019 and “serious overcrowding” in facilities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas (p. 2);

  • 31 percent of the children being detained were at facilities longer than 72 hours, the legal time limit for holding minors in detention (p. 5);

  • Staff has been withholding showers from adult migrants and asylum-seekers for as long as one month (p. 8).

The report demonstrates that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is carrying out grave human rights violations at detention centers near the border.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) contains 30 articles outlining rights inherent to every individual from birth. With reports confirmed by activists, the media, and the government, it is clear that CBP is operating in violation of the UDHR.

UDHR Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In many of the country’s 200+ immigrant detention centers, migrants and asylum-seekers face unsanitary and overcrowded conditions where they do not have access to showers, clean clothes, or nutritional meals. Recent photos show cells that are so overcrowded that detainees cannot sit or lie down. When a group of congresspeople recently visited Texas detention facilities, female detainees told the group that were not given water. Instead of drinkable water, the women were instructed by the facility’s staff – CBP agents – to drink from the toilet.

In addition to creating conditions of physical harm and discomfort, CBP is responsible for widespread mental and emotional harm. The administration has officially pursued a traumatizing policy of family separation since April 2018. Upon arrival at the border, children (including infants under the age of one) have been taken from their parents/guardians, many of whom were soon deported. Not only do poor conditions and separation amount to cruel and inhuman treatment, a violation of article 5 of the UDHR – they also may have long-term implications for detainees’ mental and physical health.

UDHR Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

As a signatory to the United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, along with the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States has a legal obligation to provide protection to those seeking asylum.[3] In order to gain this protection, asylum-seekers must establish that they have a ‘credible fear’ of violence and/or persecution in their home countries. It is illegal to force asylum-seekers back to a country in which they may be harmed.

During this approval process – which can last years – the United States does not have the authority to detain asylum-seekers indefinitely. Earlier this month, a US District Judge ruled that all asylum-seekers have a right to a bond hearing; to hold them without a hearing would be unconstitutional. By continuing to hold migrants and asylum-seekers in detention for long periods of time, the United States is in violation of article 9 of the UDHR and the U.S. Constitution.

UDHR Article 14: Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Under international treaties and federal law, an individual may request asylum at any place on U.S. territory – not just at ports of entry – within one year of their arrival. Over the past two years, the current administration has ignored these laws, instead issuing orders that:

  • Denied detained asylum-seekers the opportunity to post bail, thus remaining imprisoned in detention centers indefinitely;

  • Blocked asylum-seekers from coming into the U.S. while awaiting their immigration hearing;

  • Barred individuals from applying for asylum unless they have already applied – and been rejected – by another country first.

Trump also urged Congress to “get rid of the whole asylum system” earlier this year. From presidential speeches and tweets to official government communiques, the administration’s beliefs are abundantly clear: immigrants from certain parts of the world should not be admitted to the United States. This is a clear violation of article 14 of the UDHR, as all members of the international community share the responsibility of protecting vulnerable individuals.


The examples outlined above are only some of the ways that the U.S. is violating the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers. Immediate action must be taken to not only improve conditions in detention facilities, but also to create a system for asylum-seekers to find refuge in the U.S. that does not include imprisonment or abuse. By allowing thousands of men, women, and children to be detained indefinitely, in horrifying and unhealthy conditions, the United States continues to commit gross human rights violations.

There are, however, many individuals and organizations that are trying to help. Follow the links below to learn how you can get involved or support their efforts.

  • ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project  |  Protects the rights of immigrants through litigation, advocacy, and public outreach.

  • Border Angels  |  Provides food, water, and legal consultations to migrants and asylum-seekers

  • La Raza Centro Legal  |  Free and low-cost legal services for migrants and asylum-seekers in the Bay Area

  • LUPE  |  Founded by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, LUPE offers legal and community services in Texas

  • RAICES  |  Free and low-cost legal services for migrants and asylum-seekers in Texas


[1] Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “Donald Trump’s false comments connecting Mexican immigrants and crime,” The Washington Post, July 8, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/?utm_term=.ebe7f6c9bf32 (accessed July 19, 2019).

[2] Office of Inspector General/Department of Homeland Security, Management Alert – DHS Needs to Address Dangerous Overcrowding and Prolonged Detention of Children and Adults in the Rio Grande Valley (Redacted), 2019, https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2019-07/OIG-19-51-Jul19_.pdf (accessed July 16, 2019).

[3] Learn more about the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol at https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/1951-refugee-convention.html. Learn more about the Refugee Act of 1980 at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/the-refugee-act.