The United Nations' human rights chief expressed concern Thursday at what she said were plans by the U.S. government to deport tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who entered the United States in recent months.
Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Washington to protect the child migrants and investigate dozens of reports of abuse against them by U.S. officials.
"I am particularly concerned because the United States appears to be taking steps to deport most of these children back," Pillay told a news briefing in Geneva. "There are almost 100 reports of physical, verbal and sexual abuse by agents towards the children, filed in a complaint by NGOs (non-governmental organizations)."
"The United States does need to urgently investigate all alleged human rights abuses against children and severely sanction perpetrators," the former U.N. war crimes judge said.
Around 57,000 children from Central America were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border after crossing the frontier without their parents in the nine months leading up to June 30.
Faced with a delicate and divisive political issue, President Barack Obama's administration has said most of the children will be sent home as they would not qualify for asylum or refugee status.
The administration’s announcement comes amid an increasing belief among Americans that his administration should provide temporary support for unaccompanied Central American minors crossing the Texas border.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans — across political affiliations and religious backgrounds — believe the immigrant children should be treated like refugees, according to the poll by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Democrats and youth were most compassionate toward the immigrant children, with roughly 80 percent of both groups saying the government should support them until their cases are fully reviewed.
Last week Obama urged the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to work with him to stem the flow of child migrants and said most would not be allowed to stay.
But Pillay said children should only be deported if their protection was guaranteed in the countries they are returned to. Those needing international protection should be identified and granted protection in the United States, she said.
Mandatory detention of child migrants should only be a "last resort option" as it contravenes the legal principle of upholding a child's best interests, she added.
Meanwhile, several Texas border mayors on Wednesday echoed Pillay’s concerns. Mayors from the border towns of Brownsville, Edinburg and McAllen, who have welcomed unaccompanied children over the past several months, called for a compassionate response to the crisis.
“What we need to do as a nation is to understand the human rights of all human families. I think it’s imperative that due process is implemented for all children, but some of the legislation we are looking at doesn’t have those provisions,” said Tony Martinez, mayor of Brownsville, Texas. “Children shouldn’t be expedited to the point where we don’t have justice."
Obama's drive to tackle the migrant crisis with $3.7 billion in emergency funds has hit trouble because the deeply divided Congress leaves on a month-long recess at the end of Friday.
John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the U.S. Senate, said Sunday that he expected the House of Representatives to pass a "skinnied-down" emergency funding bill this week to deal with the crisis. But that potential finding was in doubt Thursday, after the House canceled a vote on the bill due to lack of support in the Republican conference.
"I recognize that there is a complicated political situation and we are in a position to offer assistance and advice and we do so," said Pillay.
In the meantime, the United States must provide migrant children with services to support their "physical, psychological and emotional recovery," she said.
Al Jazeera and Reuters