Asylum narratives documented instances of four parents who were taunted and mocked by immigration authorities when asking for the whereabouts of their children.
By Hajar Habbach, MA, Kathryn Hampton, MSt, & Ranit Mishori, MD, MHS
Physicians For Human Rights (2/25/20)
The Trump administration’s crackdown on asylum seekers has included the brutal intimidation tactics of family separation and family detention. These policies have profound health implications for migrant adults and children and violate basic human rights, including the right to be free from torture and enforced disappearance.
A new Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) investigation, based on psychological evaluations of asylum-seeking parents and children who were separated by the U.S. government in 2018, found pervasive symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma; most met diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder consistent with, and likely linked to, the trauma of family separation.
PHR evaluated 17 adults and nine children who had been separated under the policy for an average of 60-69 days; all but one child had been reunited at the time of evaluation. The investigation sought to explore two key questions: 1) What traumatic experiences did these asylum seekers report in their home countries, during their journey to the United States, and during and after their apprehension at the border?; and 2) What were the psychological effects associated with the forced separation of children from their parents and other family members after entry into the United States? The rich and intense narratives of our illustrative cohort help shed light on the experiences of separated families.
“The U.S. government’s treatment of asylum seekers through its policy of family separation constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and, in all cases evaluated by PHR experts, constitutes torture.”
Due to targeted acts of violence in their home countries, all parents arrived at the U.S. border having already been exposed to trauma – most often as victims of gang activity – from death threats, physical assault, relatives killed, extortion, sexual assault, or robbery. All parents expressed fear that their child would be harmed or killed if they stayed in their home country. In almost all cases, their children had already faced severe harm before fleeing – gangs drugged, kidnapped, poisoned, and threatened children, including threats of death, violence, or kidnapping, if they or their parents did not comply with the gang’s demands. Parents were confident that the journey to the United States would result in protection for their children.
When they arrived in the United States, however, parents reported that immigration authorities forcibly removed children from their parents’ arms, removed parents while their children slept, or simply “disappeared” the children while their parents were in court rooms or receiving medical care. Almost all reported that immigration authorities failed to provide any explanation as to why they were being separated, where their family members were being sent, and if or how they would be reunited. In addition, the asylum narratives documented instances of four parents who were taunted and mocked by immigration authorities when asking for the whereabouts of their children. Half of the parents interviewed by PHR clinicians reported poor conditions at the detention facilities where they were held, and the children also reported being mistreated or living in poor conditions while detained and while in foster care.
PHR clinicians chronicled that nearly everyone interviewed exhibited symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma and its effects: being confused and upset, constantly worried, crying a lot, having sleeping difficulties, not eating well, having nightmares, being preoccupied, having severely depressed moods, overwhelming symptoms of anxiety, and physiological manifestations of panic and despair (racing heart, shortness of breath, and headaches), feeling “pure agony” and hopelessness, feeling emotional and mental anguish, and being “incredibly despondent.” The evaluating clinicians noted that the children exhibited reactions that included regression in age-appropriate behaviors, crying, not eating, having nightmares and other sleeping difficulties, loss of developmental milestones, as well as clinging to parents and feeling scared following reunification with their parents.
The vast majority of mental health diagnoses given by the evaluating clinicians and depicted in the expert affidavits produced for immigration proceedings were highly consistent with these parents’ and children’s reports of their traumatic experiences in detention and family separation. At the same time, several clinicians commented on the likelihood that the present symptoms were exacerbated by pre-existing trauma from events and incidents in their home country. According to PHR’s clinicians, most individuals (both adults and children) met diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder.
PHR’s experts noted that all the individuals they interviewed demonstrated appropriate emotional reactions and did not show signs of exaggerating their plight, and uniformly described the asylum seekers as credible.
This study’s findings provide evidence of the adverse physical and mental health effects linked to the Trump administration’s family separation policy. In nearly every case encountered, PHR’s expert medical evaluators noted that the trauma suffered by the parents and the children warranted further intervention and ongoing therapeutic support, because the events were causing “significant distress” and ongoing functional impairment. The interventions most frequently recommended included trauma-focused psychotherapy, removal from detention, and psychiatric medications.
Meeting the criteria of torture
PHR finds that the U.S. government’s treatment of asylum seekers through its policy of family separation constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and, in all cases evaluated by PHR experts, rises to the level of torture.
As defined by the United Nations Convention Against Torture, torture is an act 1) which causes severe physical or mental suffering, 2) done intentionally, 3) for the purpose of coercion, punishment, intimidation, or for a discriminatory reason, 4) by a state official or with state consent or acquiescence. In the cases that PHR documented, U.S. officials intentionally carried out actions causing severe pain and suffering, in order to punish, coerce, and intimidate Central American asylum seekers to give up their asylum claims, in a discriminatory manner. Torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment are violations of human rights and are prohibited under domestic and international law in any and all circumstances.
In addition, PHR concludes that the policy and practice of family separation also constitutes enforced disappearance, which occurs when state agents conceal the fate or whereabouts of a person who is deprived of liberty. In all cases included in the study, there was a period where parents were unaware of their children’s whereabouts and were not able to contact them. Government failure to track children and parents, to facilitate parental contact, or to plan for reunification deprived children of protection under the rule of law, because they were deprived of parental oversight and consent for their welfare without due process.
The U.S. government must uphold domestic and international standards by fulfilling its obligations to: provide redress to victims of torture and ill-treatment, including in the form of rehabilitative services; ensure the families of disappeared children know the truth of their family members’ whereabouts by dedicating adequate government resources to ensure timely reunification for all separated families, including deported parents; and prosecute U.S. officials who have broken the law. …