The Trump administration’s family separation policy constituted “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” that rose “to the level of torture,” Physicians for Human Rights says in a new report, finding, “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.”
The physicians further concluded that the policy was a form of enforced disappearance, “which is prohibited under international law in all circumstances,” they wrote. “In all cases documented by PHR, there was a period where parents were unaware of their children’s whereabouts, were not able to contact them and had no assurance of, or timeline for, eventual contact or reunification … parents who asked U.S. officials about the wellbeing and whereabouts of their children were not given answers for weeks and months at a time. The concealment and lack of contact points to the crime of enforced disappearance.”
The physicians interviewed 26 adults and children who were separated by the Trump administration, which ultimately kidnapped nearly 5,500 children in total. Some families, the physicians said, were ripped apart without so much as a chance to say goodbye. “Nine of the 17 parents reported to PHR clinicians that immigration authorities abruptly separated them from their children and that they were prohibited from saying goodbye or consoling them. 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 different holding cells or receiving medical care.”
In some cases, the physicians said, immigration officials outright lied to parents in separating them. “A father from Honduras described being ‘woken up around four in the morning and told that he had to go to court to see a judge. Up to this point, he had been told he was going to be deported and they would not clarify if his son would be deported with him. He asked if he could wake up his son but was told no because he would be with him again soon after court. He left his son there on the floor covered with an aluminum blanket.’ Despite being told that he would be reunited with his son ‘soon after court,’ he would not see him again for another 73 days.”
While adults were better able to convey their experiences, children understandably experienced difficulty in trying to explain what happened to them on the U.S.’ watch. “Unable to articulate the trauma they experienced in the same manner as their parents, children used simpler terms such as feeling ‘sad’ and ‘scared’ as a result of the separation …. Children feared that they would never be reunited with their parents and, worse, that their parents were dead.” A Health and Human Services report last year similarly found one boy thought his dad had been killed “and believed that he would also be killed. This child ultimately required emergency psychiatric care to address his mental health distress.”
“In summarizing the emotional status and reactions of the asylum seekers both to the family separation and at the time of the examination, PHR clinicians chronicled nearly everyone interviewed as exhibiting symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma and its long-lasting effects,” the report said. Physicians recommended, in addition to reuniting all families separated under the policy—one child evaluated for the report was still separated from their family at the time—the creation of funding to provide families with mental health services, “redress in monetary compensation for the injuries families suffered resulting from the unlawful conduct of federal officers who intentionally inflicted this emotional distress,” and the prosecution of officials who broke the law.
A number of families and advocates have sued the Trump administration over the separations, with some success. In what legal experts called a groundbreaking ruling last fall, a federal judge ordered the administration to provide mental health services, marking “a rare instance of the government being held legally accountable for mental trauma brought about by its policies,” The New York Times reported at the time. Then, in January, nine parents who were deported without their children returned to the U.S. as a result of another historic court ruling. Among them was Guatemalan asylum-seeker David Xol, separated from his son Byron for a year and a half. “He was small,” Xol said. “He grew a lot.”