Trump Admin Owes Migrant Families Separated at Border Reparations for 'Torture' and 'Forced Disappearance,' Doctors Say

The Trump administration owes migrant families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border reparations for the trauma it inflicted on parents and children, a group of doctors have said in a new report shining a light on the long-lasting impacts President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy has had on families.

In the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) report, which was released Tuesday morning, physicians and immigration rights advocates detail the trauma that children and parents have endured after being separated by the Trump administration in 2018 under the government's widely condemned policy, which saw more than 2,500 children separated from their loved ones at the border.

After evaluating 17 adults and nine children who had been separated under the policy for an average of 60 to 69 days, with all but one child having been reunited at the time of the evaluation, physicians found that parents and children appeared to be struggling with similar "symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma and its effects."

Parents and their children spoke of "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, physiological manifestations of panic and despair," including having a "racing heart, shortness of breath, and headaches."

They said they struggled with feelings of "'pure agony,' and hopelessness, feeling emotional and mental anguish, and being 'incredibly despondent.'"

Among parents, nearly every individual evaluated was diagnosed with PTSD, while many were diagnosed with depression and some with anxiety.

Children, the report said, were undergoing sweeping changes in their moods and behaviors following separation, with many exhibiting reactions that included a "regression in age-appropriate behaviors," including being unwilling to be apart from their parents, while also regularly "crying, not eating [and] having nightmares and other sleeping difficulties."

In an interview with Newsweek on Monday, ahead of the report's release, Dr. Ranit Mishori, a senior medical adviser for PHR and Kathryn Hampton, the organization's senior asylum officer, said they were disturbed to see the impact that family separation has had on children and their parents.

"The level of cruelty is just incredibly disturbing," Mishori said. "We read one affidavit, then another and another and another and it's the same heartbreaking stories that display a level of cruelty that we're not used to here in the United States."

Both Mishori and Hampton said it was important to recognize that for many survivors of family separation, their trauma could be due to a compound of events, including the experiences they had in their home countries, on their journey to the U.S. border and upon arriving at the U.S. border.

However, both experts said that clear changes in mood and behavior, as well as new symptoms that presented themselves following separation at the border, clearly indicated that parents and children suffered trauma as a result of being separated.

Parents "clearly drew the line" between "the day before they were separated" and the days after they were reunited when they described the changes that occurred in their children's moods and behavior.

"There were two little boys who thought their mother had died because she had gone for a medical procedure and they didn't see her after," Hampton said. "They were extremely traumatized by the fact that they thought their mother had died, when she hadn't."

In the case of those two boys, Hampton said the children were never properly informed of their mother's whereabouts and were left to wonder what had happened to her, creating a traumatic experience for the two, in addition to being separated in the first place.

The Trump administration's actions in separating families at the border and then refusing to inform parents and children of their loved ones' whereabouts—in some cases, for months—meet the criteria for both "torture" and "forced disappearance," the PHR report states.

"Torture is an act which 1) causes severe physical or mental suffering, 2) is 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," the PHR report explained.

Family separation
Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center, where other families had previously been separated under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" rule. John Moore/Getty

"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 constitutes torture in all of the cases documented by PHR," it asserts.

The report's authors note that PHR's evaluations were "conducted according to the principles of the Istanbul Protocol, the U.N. guidelines for documenting torture. In the cases that PHR documented, U.S. officials intentionally carried out and condoned unlawful 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," the report states.

It goes on, however, to explain why the U.S. family separation policy also meets the criteria for enforced disappearance, which is prohibited under international law.

"Enforced disappearance is defined as any deprivation of liberty by the state where there is concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person," the report asserts.

"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," it states. "Government failure to track children and parents, to facilitate parental contact, or 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 appropriate due process, such as a hearing involving child welfare professionals."

Mishori and Hampton said parents who requested information from U.S. officials about the wellbeing and whereabouts of their children were, in some cases, not given answers for weeks and months at a time.

The intent, Mishori asserted, appeared to be to "coerce and intimidate these populations. And this was something that was very publicly stated by the administration...How they wanted to use it as a deterrent."

"When you talk about enforced disapperance, people think about Argentina and other countries that are more authoritarian," Mishori said. "It's not something you often hear about in the United States of America."

"It's a sobering realization to note that this is something that is clearly a violation of international human rights law and it's happening in the United States," the doctor added.

The purpose of identifying the Trump administration's treatment of migrant families, both PHR representatives said, was to be able to properly hold the government to account.

"The purpose of it is not just to name it but the naming of it is basically that we would like to send a message that the U.S. was not fulfilling its obligations to immigrants, there was no due process and to say there is an accountability issue here," Mishori said.

"Part of the accountability, is that we think that...all of the victims need treatment and they need resources and they need some sort of a process to help them heal from this trauma and we're saying the U.S. has to fulfil that obligation that includes medical health treatment," the doctor said.

PHR says that ultimately, the U.S. government owes migrant families who were separated at the border "reparations" for the trauma they endured.

"This can't just be swept under the rug," Hampton said. "The U.S. government must fulfil its obligations to provide victims with reparations for this unlawful practice that violated human rights."