Chapter 3: Human Rights

Kirsten Lind Seal (Owner-operator at Lind Seal Counseling & Consultation LLC) and Damir S. Utržan (Family Social Science, University of Minnesota)


Fatima and her three girls, ages 18 months, 4 and 8 years old, were exhausted by the time they reached the border between the United States and Canada. They had been on the bus from New York for two whole days: it had been very hard changing the baby’s diapers in the tiny bus bathroom that was their only option. Though Fatima had proper passports from the African nation they had fled, she told immigration officials that she was actually fleeing a neighboring country, since there was civil war raging and she thought they would be more likely to let her and her family in to Canada. But since the passports did not match her story, United States officials confiscated all of their identity documents and sent her and the girls back to New York. Penniless and alone, the little family made their way to Chicago, where Fatima had heard they were more generous to refugees like herself. What was she fleeing with her three little girls? The prospect of their having to undergo the same female genital mutilation procedure that she had endured at the age of 9. Though their future was extremely unsure, Fatima knew that she had done the only thing she could to protect her girls. “In my country they circumcise the boys in the hospital under anesthesia,” she told her therapist at the free clinic. “But the girls – no – the girls are circumcised in the bush with rusty razors and no anesthetic at all. This is what the girls get.” For Fatima there was no other choice for her but to flee and take the girls with her. Even her husband agreed, though he had stayed behind in their home country to try to keep sending them money and support. And so, Fatima was alone with her children in a foreign land, hoping for help and guidance with navigating the new language, customs, culture and realities of the United States.


There are currently an estimated 263,000 refugees and 84,300 asylum seekers residing in the United States (UNHCR; United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2013). These estimates are staggering but will continue to increase in the subsequent years as a result of ongoing-armed conflict and political unrest around the world. If it were not for the significant and ongoing international human rights violations, the number of displaced families – both immigrants and refugees –would be considerably smaller. Families flee their home countries for a range of reasons; from escaping oppressive regimes, as is the case in Syria and Iraq, to attempting to better their economic situations, as is the case in Mexico and much of Latin America. The United States, amongst other Western countries, regularly sees influxes of immigrant and refugee families from around the world depending on the sociopolitical and historical context of the time. Some of these families are intact, but the vast majority are scattered and separated around the world.

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI, 2019), the top five countries of origin for resettlement in the United States are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Ukraine, Eritrea, and Afghanistan. President Trumps announcement of additional screening for refugees from certain countries may shift these demographics somewhat (MPI, 2015). The controversy over admitting refugees into the United States from certain parts of the world, including Syria, continues to rage unabated in the mainstream press and online. For example, the fear following the Paris attacks of November 2015 prompted governors of 31 states to refuse admitting Syrian refugees; although they do not have the power to control nationality laws (Barajas & Frazee, 2015).

The purpose of this chapter is to provide a broad overview of human rights and lay out some of the essential concepts that are critical to understanding how this global issue affects immigrant and refugee families. We will present the history and general theories of human rights law, as well as explore how various issues pertaining to the current relationship between international human rights law and domestic sovereignty are being dealt with in the United States. Additionally, we will examine how specific human rights issues impact refugee and immigrant families in the United States. Implications for research, policy and practice, questions for further discussion, and a case study can be found at the end of the chapter.


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Immigrant and Refugee Families, 2nd Ed. Copyright © 2019 by Jaime Ballard, Elizabeth Wieling, Catherine Solheim, and Lekie Dwanyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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