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Zero-Tolerance: The Trump Administration’s Human Rights Violations Against Migrants on the Southern Border


In 2017, the Trump Administration imposed its policy of zero-tolerance immigration enforcement on the southern border. This policy resulted in the forcible separation of families and the prolonged detention of children in harsh conditions without due process or adequate resources. The Trump Administration unleashed these policies to deter people from immigrating and seeking asylum, consistent with President Trump’s racist campaign rhetoric. This Article analyzes and critiques these policies based on international human rights law.

This Article begins with analysis of the Trump Administration’s policies that divided families and detained children in violation of U.S. law. It proceeds to evaluate and criticize these policies under treaties ratified by the United States, conventions it has signed but not ratified, and customary international law. In the name of border enforcement, the Trump Administration’s policies violated the fundamental human rights of migrants and people seeking asylum in the United States, including the right to family life, rights of the child, and rights to be free from ill-treatment and arbitrary detention. The abrupt and often permanent separation of families, indefinite detention of children without proper care, and failure of process in these policies are all stark violations of binding international human rights law.

The Article concludes with a recognition that international institutions and legal mechanisms may not be adequate to compel the Trump Administration to respect international law, so political and electoral responses are vital to ensure that human rights remain at the heart of the American enterprise. It suggests the accord between religious ethical perspectives and human rights principles is valuable to reinforcing popular support for these norms. As the world bears witness to these cruel abuses of human rights, Americans must decide whether and how to hold the government accountable for the inherent dignity of all people within the rule of law.