Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue

“Trump Zero Tolerance,” artwork by Dan Lacey // Flickr

By Jalileh Garcia, a blog writer for RightsViews and an undergraduate student at Columbia University 

In late June, the event “Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue” took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The event was a direct response to the current administration’s immigration policies, which were highlighted by the recent and highly controversial separation of children from their parents. In the last couple of months, photographs and voice recordings of children crying “Mami” and “Papa” have overtaken the web. The children, predominantly from Central American countries, some as young as 18 months old, have become the focal point of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

Courts set a deadline for July 26 to reunite the children with their families, but the government has stated that hundreds of families were ineligible to be united. In total, 711 children remain in custody, according to the latest tally from the government. Furthermore, many of the children who have been united with their families have likely experienced significant trauma from being separated from their parents and held in detention. In the midst of the country’s ongoing immigration crisis, communities and activists have gathered to try to understand the complex issues facing immigrant children and all of those whose lives remain in limbo. 

The event “Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue” took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in June 2018. // Jalileh Garcia

“Welcome to a conversation about humanity,” said Geeta Pradhan, president of the Cambridge Community Foundation, who opened the event in Cambridge focused on immigration as a human rights issue. Pradhan introduced the panelists, who included Marc McGovern, mayor of Cambridge, human rights attorneys, legal scholars and professors.

McGovern began the conversation by stating, “I’ve heard people say that this is not the America they know.” However, he continued, “We must recognize that the America we know was one founded on the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment, colonialism, and police brutality.” By acknowledging this history, McGovern believes we can recognize the current state of affairs in the United States as a natural progression of history.

Speaker Daniel Kanstroom, a professor of law and director of the International Human Rights program at Boston College spoke next and expounded on the current state of affairs of immigration in the United States.

“We are experiencing a clever attack on immigrants which is marked by brazenness and masked by national security facades, which have inevitably resulted in a brutal violence against human rights,” he said.  

Asylum seekers have been labeled as criminals, even though they have the right to safety, protection, and fair trials under international law. The U.S. government’s actions to separate children from their families has gone so far as to receive criticism from the United Nations. A spokeswoman of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani stated, “It is never in the best interests of the child [to be detained] and always constitutes a child rights violation.” Meanwhile, private corporations that own and manage detention centers are profiting off of the detainment of people.

These complex issues call for a deep understanding of the root causes, true solidarity with survivors, and the protection of human rights, the panel agreed.

“So, how did we get here?” asked Kanstroom.

The immigration crisis is the culmination of a decades-old deportation system, which has been structurally created, the panel noted. It is the result of reactionary politics starting with nativist movements; the Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, or when Mexican immigrants were suddenly barred from coming to the United States in 1965 unless they received authorization.

Global politics has also played a significant role. Since the Monroe Doctrine was established in 1823, the expansion of the United States’ control has continued to have significant consequences on its neighbors to the south. U.S. private companies have vacated the Latin American region of its resources by creating massive wealth gaps that have for generations perpetuated cycles of poverty. Simultaneously, corrupt governments have risen to power, many with U.S. aid through CIA or military intervention policies in Central and South America and the Caribbean. These governments have often been emboldened to turn against the interests of their people, creating the circumstances that drive many to flee from their native countries, the panel indicated.

Panelists at the event, “Lives in Limbo: Immigration as a Human Rights Issue,” in June 2018.

In the discourse of immigration, the speakers noted the importance of conversations about mental health. Mojdeh Rohani, executive director at Community Legal Services and a mental health practitioner, expounded on the topic. “What is an asylum seeker?” she asked the crowd. “Well, an asylum seeker has a story. They are survivors of domestic violence, gang violence, persecution, and trauma,” she said. The trauma asylum seekers face begins elsewhere, but it becomes heightened during their time at U.S. government-run detention centers. They come to the United States for safety, but they can be subject in inhumane conditions that exacerbate their trauma. Rohani highlighted that if we keep treating asylum seekers without dignity, “we may be responsible for harboring the next generation of gangs.”  

The panelists at the “Lives in Limbo” event endeavored to come up with initiatives that individuals and communities could partake in to help resolve the immigration crisis.

Michael J. Wishnie, a clinical professor of law at Yale Law School, spoke on the matter. “We must come together, stand up, and bear witness to the human experience.” Wishnie also suggested that people engage in policy changes, grassroots movements and electoral processes.

To build upon this, Roberto Gonzales, professor of education at Harvard, asked the people of Cambridge to “focus efforts on the local level, as every policy is carried out in our localities, and could be affecting our very neighbors.”

However, the panelists acknowledged, the real change needs to come from a change of hearts. Policies cannot be grounded in empathy if people do not feel empathy for immigrant populations and a necessity to protect their human rights. Perhaps the most excruciating fact is that changes of attitude do not happen overnight. If future generations come to prioritize human rights, the people in the United States and abroad can begin to see tangible change to immigration policies that threaten the basic rights of fellow humans.


Jalileh Garcia is an undergraduate student at Columbia University pursuing a Human Rights major with a specialization in Latin America. She is originally from Honduras and is interested in transitional justice, intersectionality, and the interchange of immigration and human rights. She is an executive board member of Columbia University’s Alianza, the Baha’i Club, and the Columbia Students for Human Rights (CUSHR). 

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