The immigration debate continues to make headlines in the United States—from the government policy separating children and families to recent inquiries into funding of federal detention centers.
The Trump administration’s announcement of a zero-tolerance policy took many by surprise—but not human rights lawyer Claudia Flores. Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, Flores and students in the clinic this May published a report along with the ACLU detailing rampant abuse of migrant children from 2009-2014.
“There is a variety of abuse that was taking place,” Flores said, noting that immigration workers called children “dogs” and “pigs.” It was so astounding that Flores titled the report, “I’m Going to Take You Back to the River So You Can Die,” after something that was told to a child.
In this Big Brains episode, Flores discussed the findings of her report, the history and future of immigration policy, and her career as a human rights advocate.
- Law School clinic co-authors report with ACLU on abuse of migrant children
- ACLU Report Alleges Government Abuse Of Migrants—NPR
- We must protect migrant children from abuse by U.S. Border Patrol—Chicago Tribune
- Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever—New York Times
NARRATOR: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains with Paul M. Rand—conversations with pioneering thinkers that will change the way you see the world.
RAND: Claudia Flores has spent her career advancing human rights around the world and recently, her work made national headlines. In May, she released a report in conjunction with the ACLU that detailed the rampant abuse of unaccompanied minors that have been detained at the US border. And these findings came out right before the zero-tolerance policy announced by the Trump administration earlier this summer.
RAND: Claudia puts into perspective what that decision and the findings of her report mean for U.S. immigration policy, on this episode of Big Brains.
RAND: We are pleased to welcome Claudia Flores to Big Brains today. Claudia is an associate clinical professor of law and director of the International Human Rights Clinic in the University of Chicago Law School.
FLORES: Thank you for having me.
RAND: Expand a little bit on a report you put out called, “I’ll Take You Back to the River So You Can Die.”
FLORES: Well, interestingly, we put out the report right before Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared the zero-tolerance policy—I guess, is what he was calling it—and the hope was really to bring light to the way that we are treating children in detention.
FLORES: There are a number of immigrant children that come to the United States in hopes of a better life, usually escaping violence and poverty in their home countries. These were difficult decisions that were made by their parents. And they come to the US and they’re subjected to abuse in a fairly unregulated system that doesn’t really have any functional accountability mechanisms.
FLORES: So what we wanted to do was bring light to that issue and to really prompt reform of the system overall.
FLORES: So the study is in conjunction with the ACLU of Imperial Counties—their border litigation project. They were following litigation around the abuse of immigrant children from 2009 until 2014. There were about 33,000 pages that the ACLU of Imperial Counties received as a result of FOIA litigation—the Freedom of Information Act.
FLORES: So these are reports that were made of abuse by children—reports that children had made under the care of border patrol and also, Customs and Border Protection officials. And they were being reviewed by the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
FLORES: So the documents were essentially, the reports that the children made and then, also, the attempts to investigate and address those reports.
RAND: It’s hard to not read this and get upset. And I’m sure it was probably hard to write it and not be upset.
FLORES: Based on the reports that we saw and also the follow-up investigations, there is a variety of abuse that was taking place of children. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, just general verbal humiliation—calling children dogs and pigs.
FLORES: The title of our report, “I’m Going to Take You Back to the River So You Can Die,” is actually something that was said to a child.
FLORES: Girls who were pregnant that didn’t receive proper care for their babies. They were made to throw away clothes of babies when the baby soiled themselves and were not given new clothes. So things like that.
FLORES: Conditions of detention that were really substandard. Children not being fed for days. Not being given water when they asked for it.
FLORES: And then on the back end, really, a failure to effectively investigate these complaints. The investigative bodies would give up on complaints whenever it wasn’t corroborated by the Border Patrol officials that were being accused. Whenever there was missing documentation. Whenever there was inconsistent documentation. So there really was no way for the children’s voices to be heard.
RAND: And since that report came out, what’s happened under the current administration?
FLORES: So as you know, the evolution has been somewhat chaotic. So first, there was the zero-tolerance policy declared. And then, the fact that children were going to be separated from their parents because the parents were going to be prosecuted under federal criminal misdemeanors.
FLORES: And then because of the public outrage, the Trump administration reversed itself and decided that it was going to detain families together. And since then, has gone forward and built a number of new facilities and put structures in place to try to ensure that families can be detained together.
FLORES: Now, if the complaints of the report are taken into account, essentially, these children will now be detained in facilities and under conditions that were abusive already. The only difference is they will also be there with their parents.
FLORES: And one of the big concerns is really the psychological impact and the long-term impact on these children in being subjected to detention that is unnecessary. And potentially, creating a generation of children from Northern Triangle countries and Mexico that have been in prison in the United States.
RAND: What kind of impact do you think the report and you’re talking about this has had so far?
FLORES: Well, the report had enormous impact when it came out, both from a public awareness and public education perspective. There were also, various members of Congress that called for internal investigations of Customs and Border Protection.
FLORES: As you know, this has been a very complicated time for immigration enforcement and the issue of first, separating children from families and then, detaining families. But what we think is important about the report is that the kinds of problems and challenges that the immigration system had really have continued, regardless of what President Trump has proposed as a solution.
FLORES: So now, families will be detained in a system that was already harming children and was already broken. So that’s really not a solution to our immigration issues.
RAND: It almost comes across as inconceivable on so many different levels and the question is, how in the world did it get to this stage? And why has it been allowed? And is there a purpose behind it? Or is it just that people believe this is what is a deterrent?
FLORES: So I think there’s a number of answers to that question. One is that our immigration policy and the focus on deterrence is actually very narrow-minded.
FLORES: We have immigration issues that have to do with the fact that there are jobs here. And there are employers that want to hire immigrants.
FLORES: And we don’t have the proper temporary foreign labor programs. They’re either underfunded or they’re not properly implemented.
FLORES: Our H-2B and H-2A programs, which are for low-wage agricultural and non-agricultural workers—those programs have been roundly criticized. We have Au Pair programs, in which girls usually are brought in to work as nannies for children. It’s supposedly, an educational program, but there have been repeated reports of girls being abused and underpaid in those programs, as well.
FLORES: So as long as we don’t deal with those things—as long as we don’t deal with employment standards and immigration employment programs that actually meet the market here and the need, but also take care of ensuring the human rights of the workers that come in, we’re going to continue to have this issue. So focusing on deterrence has been shown to be ineffective, really.
FLORES: The first thing that needs to be done is to move away from detention as a deterrent mechanism. There is no evidence that it’s effective. In fact, most studies demonstrate that the ebb and flow of immigration has much more to do with how the economies of surrounding countries are doing and how our economy is doing.
FLORES: So immigration to the United States has lowered when our economy has stagnated and we haven’t had as many jobs. And immigration from Mexico—for example—now is far less than it was before. It used to be the majority of immigrants that came here and now, I think, it’s only 50 percent because the Mexican economy has stabilized.
FLORES: So there are a bunch of other factors we need to look at and not focus on detention. Detention’s incredibly expensive, and it’s not effective.
FLORES: There are many of the programs that we were actually using before, in which families were under a supervised mechanism. They needed to report in periodically. They were given lawyers to ensure that they actually showed up to their hearings.
FLORES: There was a 97 percent rate of showing up to legal hearings under that system, in which families were not being detained. And I think there was an 87 percent compliance rate when they were actually ordered deported. So once you give families the right amount of services and legal representation, the system actually works. And it’s cheaper than what President Trump wants to do now.
FLORES: So beyond that, we also need to expand the discussion and have a discussion about how to meet our labor needs. And also, really create a system of immigration that works for the economies and also, the societies that we’re surrounded by.
FLORES: And I think the thing with immigration issues is it can seem like it’s not our problem, that it’s something that’s happening outside. But there are economic relationships between—social and economic relationships between the United States and the countries that these immigrants are coming from that are relevant and we need to pay attention to them.
RAND: So you may have heard this the other day, one of my favorite podcasts—I think I’ve mentioned this before on here—it is The Daily. And the head of the ACLU was interviewed earlier this week. I assume you listen to that, given your—
FLORES: I think, I did. Anthony Romero was interviewed. Yes, I did. Yes.
RAND: And the tactics of the ACLU is he was pointing out during that segment, have really changed and it was a little stark because he said we learned a lot out of watching the NRA.
RAND: Talk about that for a second.
FLORES: I actually thought that was really interesting. And when I was listening to it, I was also thinking to myself—how much I am a product also of the ACLU in the way that I approach my legal advocacy work.
FLORES: I think what Anthony was pointing out—which I think is really true—is how much advocacy is about creating a message that’s accessible to people. Lawyers, sometimes, lose themselves in policy and technical language and that’s not powerful when you’re really trying to communicate with the public.
RAND: It’s a story.
FLORES: It’s a story—yes, exactly. And I think once you’re able to tell a story in a way that’s accessible to individuals and in the context of immigrant children, really, once people are thinking about these as children—your children, my children, and our obligation to those children—the story is very different than there are immigrants that are trying to invade our country and take over, which is really what the administration has been putting out a little bit.
RAND: And so your hope is not only through the clinic, but through education, that more people become aware of the options of seeing examples of things that work differently, hopefully better, in some ways.
FLORES: That’s right. And a lawyers’ tools are litigation, research and policy advocacy, and public awareness raising. So I do think—I think storytelling is incredibly important and that’s what human rights reporting tries to do. And that’s what the clinic tries to do with our human rights reports, is tell a story that will be impactful and accessible.
RAND: What void was the feeling that there was out there, that the clinic hoped to address?
FLORES: So the role of the clinic really is—well, it’s dual. We’re at the University of Chicago Law School and the clinic is staffed by law students and supervised by faculty—myself and a fellow. I take on projects that I think will both expose students to important and relevant human rights issues and will also have an impact on advancing a particular human rights goal.
FLORES: We support partners. So essentially here, the partner was the ACLU. They had been doing the advocacy work in the long-term and we supported them with the drafting of the report and the research that we did.
FLORES: We will continue to advocate on the issue of immigrants’ rights. We take on a number of projects that are related both to immigration, low-wage workers, women’s rights.
FLORES: On the issue of immigration, I think we have entered the phase where the public is aware of the problems and aware of the abuse that’s taking place. And now, there are decisions that have to be made about what kind of country we are and what we’re willing to do what we’re not willing to do.
RAND: How do you choose—because I doubt there’s any shortage—
FLORES: There’s no shortage.
RAND: How do you choose what you’re going to put your energy into?
FLORES: I try to select projects that I think are urgent so timely and urgent. We’ve worked on the Rohingya in Myanmar. We’ve worked on violent extremism in Tunisia. So issues that are relevant and important and that also, have an important human rights angle that is being unmet.
FLORES: So the advantage of looking at things through a human rights lens is you can really look at what are the basic rights of people and whether or not those rights are being violated in some way.
RAND: What is it—with the students that you have coming through—what is it that you’re hoping they’re taking away from the experience with you?
FLORES: I have two goals with the clinic. One is to expose students to advocacy-based and human rights, which makes them more powerful advocates and lawyers that are committed to public service and to service in the public interest.
RAND: Has the number of students that have an interest in that increasing, do you believe?
FLORES: It has, it has. And it’s hard to tell because the clinic is young, but the University of Chicago Law School has a very robust clinical program in other areas. We have a federal defender clinic. We have an environmental clinic. And students more and more are interested in participating in the clinics because they are exposed to an area of law and at the same time, get to engage in it in practice.
FLORES: But my other goal really, is to produce passionate advocates. And regardless of what area of law they go into, their experience in the clinic provides them with an opportunity to really develop their critical thinking skills, their legal writing skills.
FLORES: I had a student just a few months ago, head a panel at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on our report on defending dissent. So they really have an opportunity to do some really important work.
RAND: So when you went to law school, was it with the idea that you were going to become a human rights lawyer?
FLORES: It was.
RAND: It was?
RAND: And what prompted that?
FLORES: Well, I was an undergraduate here.
RAND: At Chicago?
FLORES: Yes. And then I went off for two years to work as an investigator working in support of death penalty appeals. And a lot of what we were doing in that job was telling stories about our clients that would hopefully lead to a change in sentencing, from the death penalty to life without parole. So I learned there, the power of storytelling.
FLORES: And when I went to law school, I went there knowing full well that I wanted to do some form of advocacy on behalf of marginalized communities and individuals whose rights were being violated.
FLORES: I was a legal advisor for the UN in Zimbabwe and in East Timor and I also worked in Indonesia for a while. So I’ve been in states where the governments were, more or less, protective of individuals rights.
FLORES: One thing that has been hard for me is seeing a lot of those dynamics come to the United States. I’m originally from Peru so I’ve been in situations where the government is not doing a good job of protecting its citizens. And so I’m mindful of the kinds of dynamics that may be occurring in our country here that we need to be watchful of.
RAND: So let me ask you—as you think over the years that you’ve been doing this and with the students, is there some commonality when you say the reason human rights are so consistently violated and what causes that?
FLORES: I’ll say, there are two conceptual similarities—I think—in situations where human rights are violated, one is when a country or a population are thinking about another group as not them, as different from them, or other to them.
FLORES: So for example, if you take the case of Myanmar—the larger percentage of the population in Myanmar think of the Rohingya as not part of them.
RAND: Got it.
FLORES: And so, that gives them some sense that it’s OK to treat them in a way that they would never treat their own people. So that’s one conceptual similarity.
FLORES: Another, I think, is when you don’t have a strong civil society and you don’t have a strong culture of dissent in a country. So when people don’t feel like they can actually express their opinions and when there aren’t non-governmental organizations that are representing people, that’s where you find a lot of human rights violations. And that’s increasingly becoming a concern in our country, where dissent is becoming less and less acceptable.
RAND: So do you feel that your worries about our own country and the attention needed on issues in our own country is increasing over the time that you’ve been doing this?
FLORES: So I was an ACLU lawyer for five years. I’ve done a lot of work on constitutional and civil rights issues here in the United States and I’ve always had some concerns. But I will say that yes, I am concerned that increasingly, the kinds of basic standards that appeared to be in place are now open to question.
FLORES: To give you an example on this issue of immigrants’ rights—I spent a good amount of my career representing low-wage immigrant workers—farm workers, women who worked in 99 cent stores, domestic workers who were trafficked to the United States. The kinds of things that advocates were concerned about then, was real enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Or trying to bring certain sectors into greater employment protections. Those things seemed like pie in the sky now, given everything that we need to worry about now.
RAND: Well, you’ve given us a great amount to think about. Thank you for making time to come and visit with us.
FLORES: Thank you so much for having me.
NARRATOR: Big Brains is a production of the UChicago podcast network. To learn more, visit us at news.uchicago.edu. And subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and wherever else you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.
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