Story at a glance

  • A qualitative study of children and families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy has found that the treatment of families rose to the level of torture.
  • Most individuals interviewed by clinicians met criteria for diagnoses like PTSD, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Some children still exhibited systems of severe trauma more than a year after reunification with their parents.

Extreme psychological trauma experienced by families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under a Trump-era policy rose to the level of torture as defined by the United Nations, according to a qualitative study of children and parents.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE late last month, the study by Physicians for Human Rights found the U.S. government’s separation of 31 parents and children at the border “constitutes cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment” which “rise to the level of torture,” using the definition established by the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

“In the cases reviewed, it is apparent that U.S. officials intentionally carried out actions causing severe pain and suffering in order to punish and intimidate mainly Central American asylum seekers to not pursue their asylum claims,” the study’s authors wrote.

The U.S. government between 2017 and 2018 separated more than 5,000 children from their parents as part of former President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. As of August, at least 1,841 families were still separated, according to the study, which reviewed narratives from clinical experts who had interviewed separated parents and children.

Trump in 2018 defended his administration’s actions at the border shortly before issuing an executive order rolling back family separations.

“I don't want children taken away from parents,” he said at the time during a speech before the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away.”


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A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson under President Biden told Changing America DHS and an interagency task force were still working to reunite separated parents and children.

"Separated families have experienced immense trauma. It is our moral imperative to not only reunite these families, but to provide them with the support and services they need to heal," they said in a statement. "Secretary Mayorkas has met with some of the parents and has heard firsthand of the pain and trauma the families are experiencing after being cruelly separated under the previous Administration’s zero-tolerance policy."

Clinicians in the study reported that most individuals exhibited signs and symptoms of trauma after reunification and met criteria for mental health diagnoses like post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Two small children evaluated “long after reunification with their parents” still exhibited severe symptoms of PTSD and separation anxiety disorder, according to the researchers, noting that “neither had exhibited these symptoms prior to the separation event.”

Parents and children also shared pre-migration traumas, and in almost all cases had been victims of persecution in their home countries that included gang-based violence, death threats, physical assault, murder of relatives, extortion, sexual assault, and robbery. Children had also been drugged, kidnapped, and poisoned before arriving in the U.S.

“Parents were confident that the journey to the United States would ensure protection for their children,” researchers wrote.

But, according to reports, officials were often punitive rather than protective, and immigration authorities forcibly removed children from parents’ arms in some cases. In others, children “disappeared” while their parents were in courtrooms or receiving medical care.

In nearly every case, parents reported that officials would not tell them why they were being separated and if or how they would be reunited. When parents asked about the whereabouts of their children, they were mocked.


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Published on Dec 02, 2021