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An obscure State Department policy change is likely to send immigrants to their death

Asylum seekers are likely to be sent back to their home countries to be tortured or killed.

US President Donald Trump speaks alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) during a Cabinet Meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump speaks alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) during a Cabinet Meeting in the Cabinet Room at the White House (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The State Department has “been ordered to pare back passages in a soon-to-be-released annual report on global human rights that traditionally discuss women’s reproductive rights and discrimination,” Politico reported earlier this week. This change is likely to have a devastating impact on many foreign nationals seeking asylum in the United States after facing persecution, or even the threat of death, in their home nation.

A trio of federal immigration laws and human rights treaties permit individuals, who otherwise would be subject to deportation, to remain in the United States — if they are likely to face certain kinds of persecution in their home country. An immigrant seeking asylum, for example, may remain in the United States if they can establish that they have a “well-founded fear of future persecution” in their country of origin. Similarly, under Article 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the United States agrees not to “expel, return, or extradite” a foreign national if it is “more likely than not that they would be tortured if removed to a specific country.”

Immigrants seeking asylum or similar protections often rely heavily on the State Department’s annual human rights reports to establish that their fear of persecution or torture in their home nation is well-founded. For example: The 2016 State Department report on the northwestern African nation of Mauritania warns that members of the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, an anti-slavery organization that advocates for the rights of Mauritania’s Haratine ethnic group, were arrested and tortured there. This report could provide members of this organization (or even members of Mauritania’s Haratine minority more generally) who arrive in the United States with the evidence they need to be able to stay.

The next round of human rights reports, however, reportedly will strip down passages “that describe societal views on family planning, including how much access women have to contraceptives and abortion,” as well as a “broader section that chronicles racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination,” as Politico reports. These changes are “believed to have been ordered by a top aide to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.”

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It is unclear just how drastically these reports will be pared down, but the State Department should understand the stakes if it chooses to water down its human rights reports.

A major reason why asylum seekers must rely on State Department reports is that the U.S. government is one of only a handful of entities capable of compiling such information in such a comprehensive way. If the State Department will no longer provide complete information on subjects such as ethnic discrimination, female genital mutilation, anti-LGBTQ persecution, or similar topics, then it is unlikely that many immigrants will be able to find this information from alternative sources.

Though some of the slack may be picked up by human rights groups such as Amnesty International, there will no longer be a single, comprehensive source where immigration attorneys can go to demonstrate the kinds of persecution that occur in many foreign nations. Many immigrants may be unable to find any reliable source demonstrating that the persecution they face in their home nation is real. Worse, some immigration judges may even conclude that conditions have improved in nations with widespread abuses because the State Department reports no longer mention such abuse.

And when that happens, it is almost certain that innocent people will be sent back to oppressive regimes to be imprisoned, tortured, or killed.