‘Abusive and Unlawful’: Immigrants’ Rights Groups Present Allegations to the United Nations on the Short-term Enforced Disappearance of Migrants in DHS Custody and as a Consequence of U.S. Border Policies

February 1, 2024
For Immediate Release
Contact: [email protected]

GENEVA—Today, seven immigrants’ rights organizations—Americans for Immigrant Justice, the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP), Al Otro Lado, RAICES, Haitian Bridge Alliance, Human Rights First, and the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP)—presented their concerns to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) concerning the short-term enforced disappearance of individuals and families seeking protection in the United States.

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.

These groups raised concerns regarding the treatment of asylum seekers and other migrants by U.S. government officials that often results in short-term enforced disappearances, specifically in relation to individuals held in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody or interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard as well as enforced disappearances of those blocked in, expelled or returned to Mexico under U.S. policies including Title 42, Remain in Mexico, and the current asylum ban.

“Migrants and asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors, attempting to access safety in the United States are being interdicted and essentially held incommunicado on Coast Guard vessels for days or weeks at a time, with no way to inform their family members of their fate or whereabouts,” said Cindy Woods, National Policy Counsel with Americans for Immigrant Justice. “The opacity regarding the ability for interdicted migrants to contact family, legal counsel, or receive adequate screening for humanitarian protection claims is unacceptable. We are optimistic that this engagement with the Working Group will help shed light on and address this and other instances of enforced disappearances of asylum seekers by U.S. government officials.”

“The U.S.’s systemic use of short-term enforced disappearances against migrants and asylum seekers is an egregious violation of human rights,” said Natalie Cadwalader-Schulteis, an attorney with the Florence Project. “The U.S. government routinely holds people for days and weeks without providing any information to the outside world of a person’s whereabouts. Family members are left to desperately search for their missing loved ones and tell of the excruciating pain of not knowing their loved ones’ fates or whereabouts. The migrants who live to tell their tales of enforced disappearances have recounted of their inability to reach not only family but lawyers at a time when they most desperately need someone defending them to prevent their unlawful return to places where they fear persecution and torture.”

“There is no agency operational consideration, national security factors, or legal justification, for the separation of families being processed by US Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol,” said Nicole Elizabeth Ramos, Al Otro Lado’s Border Rights Project director. “The purpose is to create chaos, the objective is to be cruel, to make the conditions of seeking asylum in the United States so onerous, so terrifying, that people simply do not come.”

“Together with other advocates, Human Rights First has tracked over 16,320 documented reports of kidnapping, murder, torture, rape, and other serious harm including enforced disappearances of asylum seekers and migrants blocked in, expelled, or returned to Mexico under Title 42Remain in Mexico, and the current asylum ban. Those numbers are only the tip of the iceberg, but they speak to the grave dangers these policies – and those reported to be under consideration by the Senate – pose for people who seek asylum in the United States,” said Christina Asencio, Director of Research and Analysis, Refugee Protection with Human Rights First. “U.S. policies that restrict access to asylum strand people seeking protection in danger and refoul them to life-threatening harm. They are illegal under international refugee and human rights law that the U.S. is obliged to uphold.”

Based on the information provided by these organizations during Thursday’s session, the UNWGEID could transmit general allegations of enforced disappearance to the U.S. government, which would have the opportunity to respond to these allegations and engage further with the UNWGEID to address their concerns, including by inviting Working Group experts for a country visit and request technical assistance.

Groups involved in presenting their concerns to the Working Group urged this panel of legal experts to further investigate these allegations of enforced disappearance, develop recommendations for the U.S. government on how to immediately cease and avoid further enforced disappearances and to collaborate with other U.N. special mandate holders, like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to investigate additional rights violations occurring as a result of the U.S. government’s continued enforced disappearance of asylum seekers and other migrants.