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America should pay reparations to ICE detainees who have suffered human rights abuses

It's important to talk about restitution — even if it seems out of reach — because otherwise we collaborate in accepting injustice.
Image: A mother holds her 1-year-old child as they surrender to Border Patrol
A mother migrating from Honduras holds her 1-year-old child as they surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents after illegally crossing the border on June 25, 2018, near McAllen, Texas.David J. Phillip / AP
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A 19-month-old Guatemalan child detained in March with her mother by immigration authorities in Texas contracted a respiratory infection and died six weeks after she was released. On August 28, the child's mother announced a lawsuit against the city of Eloy, Arizona, which is the main contractor running the facility, claiming that the child's death was due to negligence and poor care. She’s not alone in this belief: A recent Human Rights Watch report found that 8 of the 15 recent deaths in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) custody between December 2015 and April 2017 were the result of substandard care.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has dedicated itself to harassing, tormenting, and violating the human rights of immigrants. Trump's policy of separating children from their parents at the border was greeted with such horror and outrage that he was forced to end the practice. But that's hardly the only violation. Women have reported being sexually assaulted by guards and personnel while being held in custody by ICE; the agency is also attempting to prevent pregnant women in custody from receiving abortions. Many of these abuses extend back before the Trump administration; President Barack Obama's immigration policies frequently had unjust consequences as well. But Trump's demonization of immigrants has certainly made things worse.

Getting rid of ICE isn't much comfort to those who have already been assaulted or mistreated in ICE custody. To really make up for its failures, the government needs to provide restitution to those it has injured.

In response to these abuses, advocates successfully forced Trump to end his official policy of separating children at the border. They've also called for the abolition of ICE itself, an agency that was only created after 9/11. But while ending bad policies is important and necessary, it will not do much to help people already harmed and traumatized. It's good that children are no longer being forcibly taken from their parents, but for those children who already underwent periods of separation, the damage is already done.

Even getting rid of ICE isn't much comfort to those who have already been assaulted or mistreated in ICE custody. To really make up for its failures, the government needs to provide restitution to those it has injured. And it should start by offering an expedited path to citizenship for people in government custody who have suffered human rights abuses.

There are several reasons to offer citizenship to immigrants the government has harmed. The first is to protect adults and children who have been abused in ICE custody and make sure they don't continue to suffer abuse. The government already provides a path to citizenship for crime victims, notes Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, a clinical social worker and assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at the University of San Francisco. This provision is called the U nonimmigrant status (U visa) program. It is intended to help immigrants who have been trafficked, assaulted, or otherwise victimized.

By providing a path to citizenship, the U visa program allows victims to aid law enforcement without fear of being deported or detained. It's also a way of ensuring that these immigrants are not re-victimized by being separated from support networks and other resources. The three-year process allows victims to obtain a work permit, so they can provide for themselves and their families — a big part of regaining emotional and economic stability. U visas, Hernandez-Arriaga concludes, tell victims, "we're not going to continue to harm you. You've already gone through enough."

U visas require a police report, Hernandez-Arriaga says, and so they probably can't be repurposed to apply to children separated from their families, or to people abused in ICE custody. But they can serve as a legal and philosophical blueprint for new legislation. Children separated from their parents experience longterm trauma; if the government inflicts trauma on a child, it should be responsible for that child's ongoing well-being. Moreover, ICE has allegedly targeted critics of its policies for arrest. Granting citizenship to people who have been abused is essential if they are going to be able to speak out, in court or in public, without fear of reprisal.

In addition to granting victims more rights and more power, providing citizenship as a form of restitution would challenge to the current narratives around immigration. Trump and his supporters like to refer to immigrants as "illegals." Trump constantly associates immigrants with criminality.

Providing citizenship to people the government injures would be a public, pointed admission that this narrative is flawed. Offering citizenship to those we've wronged is a way to admit to specific wrongdoing. It's also a way to acknowledge that the root of that wrongdoing is the decision to treat a group of innocent people as strangers and enemies, rather than as neighbors.

Immigrants hear the message that we hate them loud and clear. When she was working with families on the southern Texas border, Hernandez-Arriaga recounts a conversation with one woman who was heartbroken by her reception in the U.S. "I came to los Estados Unidos because I thought they were Unidos,” the woman told Hernandez-Arriaga. “But now I know there's nothing United about the United States. Once you get here they completely turn their back on you." Turning our backs on immigrants has become America's official policy; we take their children from them, lock them away, sexually assault them and deny them care, all in an effort to convince them, and ourselves, that they are somehow less worthy of dignity and humanitarian treatment.

Turning our backs on immigrants has become America's official policy; we take their children from them, lock them away, sexually assault them and deny them care.

Of course, the fact that the GOP has devoted itself to demonizing immigrants means that the path to restitution will be very difficult. Even some on the left will reject it as too inflammatory, or insufficiently pragmatic. But America has passed reparations in the past. President Ronald Reagan apologized for Japanese internment camps in 1988, providing cash payments and a formal apology to those imprisoned. More recently, Chicago paid reparations to victims of police torture, offering them money, and counseling, as well as funds for education about police violations and brutality. Activists have been working to free wrongly convicted men and hold the city to account since the 1970s, when victims and advocates allege police commander Jon Burge began torturing suspects. For years it seemed that Chicago would never admit guilt. But if activists had decided it was impossible, it never would have happened.

It's important to talk about reparations and restitution even if they seem out of reach because otherwise we collaborate in accepting injustice. Part of politics is figuring out the right thing to do, so we can start taking the steps we need to take to get there. Simply ceasing to violate a group’s human rights isn't sufficient. We owe restitution to the people we've harmed. And since we have harmed them, first of all, by refusing to acknowledge that they are part of our community, we should start to repair the damage by officially saying that they do belong.

Children separated from their parents by an American government should grow up secure in the knowledge that the U.S. government will never again take their parents away from them. In that context, citizenship seems like the least we can do.

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