Torture, Still: You Will Never See Your Child Again (Or If You Do She/He Will Be Unrecognizable)

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A Guatemalan mom separated from her child. Photo Luis Echeverria/Reuters. Front photo Guillermo Arias/Getty

Awash in his own racist incompetence as he faces the coronavirus outbreak, Trump has again targeted brown people, the victims of his most savage abuses. The news he is "strongly" looking at closing the southern border - though Mexico has only three victims, all infected in Italy, and we have over 60 - is one more mindlessly punitive strand of a border policy whose cruelties go on apace. Now Trump may be feeling especially vindictive in the wake of rare defeats at the border: On Friday, a Court of Appeals in San Francisco blocked two policies that have effectively halted asylum in this country - or in the words of one headline, they "brutally ripped the mask off Trump's cruelty." In one ruling, the court rejected an effort to bar immigrants who cross the border other than at official entry points. And in a bigger move, they halted a much-hated "Remain in Mexico" policy that's left 60,000 migrants stranded in Mexico in squalid conditions; the Orwellian-named Migrant Protection Protocols have provided no protections, but has seen up to 1,000 people murdered, raped, assaulted or kidnapped in what is widely deemed "a humanitarian disaster." Calling the practice "invalid in its entirety," the court found it likely violated both federal and international law, and ruled asylum seekers must be allowed into the U.S. while their cases make their laborious way through the courts. Said the ACLU, which along with several groups had brought suit, “It’s time for the administration to follow the law and stop putting asylum-seekers in harm’s way.” Alas, as Fox News pointedly noted, that block was temporary, and the case will likely go to the newly right-wing Supreme Court. Thanks Susan Collins. 

Regardless, those victories may be too little and too late for too many. For the first time, medical and human rights experts have said the forced separation of over 5,500 migrant children from their families at the border, with their attendant abuse and trauma, meets the legal standard for torture. In a disturbing new report from Physicians for Human Rights titled You Will Never See Your Child Again: The Persistent Psychological Effects of Family Separation,” doctors found that Trump's policy, which officially ended in 2018 but in grim fact continues today, “constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” with devastating effects "you carry with you possibly forever." For the report, PHR evaluated 17 adults and nine children from Central America who had been separated roughly two months. All had fled similar dangers in their home countries. Most adults had received death threats from drug cartels, after which they tried moving within the country, changing phone numbers, meeting extortion demands in hopes of protecting their children, many of whom had been drugged, kidnapped or threatened by the gangs. Finally, they left. “Parents were confident," the report reads, "the journey to the United States would result in protection for their children.” But here they met with new abuses. Crammed into cold, dirty detention centers, kids were “forcibly removed" from their arms or simply “disappeared” by border agents who mocked their concerns. Children were weeping, terrified, inconsolable, physically and sexually abused, and whisked away into the shelter system. In front of their crying kids, stunned mothers were handcuffed, interrogated, threatened with arrest, deportation or the report's titular warning.

Though those interviewed had disparate experiences - journeys, destinations, camps - doctors were struck by the "practically identical" psychological damage they saw; even government watchdogs have acknowledged that damage, along with the lack of any system to reunite families. Experts say kids especially will often suffer severe, long-lasting effects, including physical changes to the brain, long-term regression, impact on cognition and behavior, and ultimately higher rates of chronic physical and psychiatric disorders. For pre-verbal children, such trauma can amount to “endangering children’s very right to their names and identities," a profound violation (that) constitutes enforced disappearance.” Most vitally and horrifically, doctors say the shock, terror or grief endured by children was intentionally inflicted with the goal of terrorizing parents into going back to their countries - and, often, their deaths. U.S. officials deliberately carried out actions “causing severe pain and suffering," they write, "in order to punish, coerce, and intimidate Central American asylum seekers to give up their asylum claims.” Doctors stressed that intentionality is a key factor in their argument the abuse meets the legal standard for torture - an argument previously only made by legal experts. They also say border officials ignored warnings from leading medical experts that family separation would severely traumatize these children and adults. "As a clinician, nobody was prepared for this to happen on our soil,” said the report's  co-author Dr. Ranit Mishori. “It is beyond shocking that this could happen in the United States, by Americans, at the instruction and direct intention of US government officials.”

In June 2018, a federal judge issued an injunction ordering the government to stop its separations. But loopholes have allowed the practice to continue, and since then at least 1,142 children have been brutalized. Even when returned to their families thanks to tireless work by rights groups, they face multiple, PTSD-related obstacles from what one critic calls "a vast, cruel experiment on the backs of children.” And that experiment continues: Last week, Texas opened another new, slightly prettied-up "processing facility" - aka concentration camp - in a series of "black holes ripe for abusive conditions." On Thursday, which was the anniversary of the start of the "Remain in Mexico"policy - and the day before the court halted it - members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and advocates gathered to condemn it and other border atrocities aimed at blocking or dismantling the asylum system. Illegally forcing people to wait months living in shelters and tents and mud without access to medical or legal services, said Caucus Chair Joaquin Castro, is one more "violation of the legal rights and human rights of people who are seeking refuge" - which is, lest we forget, legal in this country. Those people, said Castro, "should not have to bear" the conditions and hardships and yes torture of the last three years: "These are human beings." He might have added, the people carrying out these policies are not. For those who don'tget it, or refuse to see it, the heroic folks of RAICES and many other advocacy groups urgently ask, Don't Look Away.

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Update: A federal judge ruled Sunday that racist thug and head of Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli was not lawfully appointed to his job - in which he's been busily trying to sabotage the asylum process - thus rendering null and void several new policies restricting immigration. There may yet be hope for the rule of law (or not). Developing story.

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California. Photo by David Maung/EPA

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Reunited. Photo by Ringo Chiu/AP

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