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Central American immigrants turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on February 22, 2018 near McAllen, Texas

Central American immigrants turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents on February 22, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Doctors Group Urges Biden to Redress Victims of Trump-Era Family Separation

"Reparation is not a policy choice; it is the fulfillment of the U.S. government's obligation owed to victims as a result of its unlawful breach of international and domestic law."

Brett Wilkins

Parents forcibly separated from their children during then-President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration crackdown continue to suffer enduring trauma and should be justly compensated by a Biden administration that's instead defending its predecessor in court, according to a report published Tuesday by a prominent human rights group.

"Separated families continue to endure significant distress, functional impairment, and mental health disorders."

The Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) study examines the enduring psychological damage of Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy on a group of 13 parents who were deported from the United States, most of whom were separated from their children for three to four years. The publication also highlights the successes—and shortcomings—of the Biden administration's response to its predecessor's policy.

"The psychological evaluations conducted by PHR clinicians show that separated families continue to endure significant distress, functional impairment, and mental health disorders," PHR medical director Dr. Michele Heisler, who conducted an evaluation for the report, said in a statement.

"This ongoing trauma is a consequence of being forcibly separated from their children by the U.S. government and later deported to face persecution in their countries of origin," she added. "These new findings make it clear that reparations and redress are not an optional policy choice. It is the bare minimum fulfillment of the U.S. government's obligation owed to victims as a result of its violations of international and domestic law."

Between 2017 and at least late 2018, more than 5,000 children—most of them fleeing violence and impoverishment in Central America—were seized from their parents by a xenophobic administration seeking to stem undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Separated parents and children were often detained in facilities that numerous critics called "concentration camps."

The parents in the study described being forcibly separated from their children by unsympathetic officials who offered little or no information about the reason for the action, where their children were being taken, and for how long.

Most of the parents in the PHR report were deported to "dangerous situations," with more than half saying they "continue to live in constant fear of persecution and hiding from gangs or cartels who threatened them before."

As a result of the separation policy, both parents and children—who were often told by U.S. officials that they would never see each other again—have suffered tremendous emotional and psychological trauma that PHR has called "torture" and "state-sanctioned child abuse."

According to the report:

Although in most cases the separation had taken place several years before, the parents' despair was evident in the reporting of current symptoms at the time of the PHR evaluation. Almost universally, parents noted continued disturbances in sleep, nightmares, loss of appetite, loss of interest, fear for the future, constant worry, hopelessness, and loss of the ability to concentrate.

One mother said, "I don't know if I will ever be able to ever recover from what I have experienced."

Another mother said that being separated from her daughter felt like something "choking me from the inside." One father explained that separation physically hurt because his son was "part of my heart that was torn away from me."

"It's a very immense pain," said yet another parent. "I don't know if I will ever be able to recover from what I have experienced."

"I don't know if I will ever be able to recover from what I have experienced."

Eleven of the 13 parents documented post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses, while the other two suffered from symptoms of PTSD just below the clinical level.

One Honduran man who was not part of the study reportedly killed himself nearly four years ago while jailed in Texas following separation from his three-year-old child.

"Many parents subjectively described the separation event as the worst thing they had ever experienced, even compared with other severe forms of trauma, such as assault," the study notes. "In virtually every case encountered, PHR's expert 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 report asserts that "the persistent and damaging psychological effects documented by PHR call out for acknowledgment, accountability, redress, and rehabilitation."

The paper continues:

In response to these U.S. government abuses and subsequent psychological effects, parents called for a formal public apology by the government, an investigation such as a truth commission, financial compensation and funding for rehabilitation expenses, legal reforms to prevent repetition, and, importantly, permanent immigration status in the United States, to ensure that they would not be separated from their children again.

These measures are all strongly supported in international human rights law, which requires states that inflict torture to ensure prompt and effective remedies for victims and survivors. Reparation is not a policy choice; it is the fulfillment of the U.S. government's obligation owed to victims as a result of its unlawful breach of international and domestic law.

While President Joe Biden—who in February 2021 signed an executive order establishing a family reunification task force—has said that separated families "deserve some compensation," their advocates were deeply disappointed when his administration withdrew from settlement negotiations with the migrants' lawyers last December.

Continuing a pattern repeated by past presidents, the Biden administration is seeking to protect, rather than hold accountable, its predecessor. As the president's former boss—then-President Barack Obama—shielded George W. Bush administration and Central Intelligence Agency officials accused of torture in the War on Terror, Biden is defending Trump's family separation policy in court. This forces families who often lack the means to pay for legal representation to either give up or relive the trauma of separation in "protracted, adversarial court proceedings."

"The Biden administration should immediately return to the global settlement negotiations it shamefully walked away from in December," asserted PHR Asylum Program deputy director Kathryn Hampton. "Rather than defending Trump's family separation practices in court, the Justice Department should instead provide redress and rehabilitation."

In June 2021, Biden's reunification task force said it had identified at least 3,913 children who were separated under Trump's "zero tolerance" policy. According to PHR, at least 324 children were in the process of being reunified as of February 2022, while 1,228 children had not yet been returned to their parents.

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