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PHR Echoes Concerns Raised by Homeland Security Health Experts about Family Detention

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) echoes today the serious concerns expressed by two Department of Homeland Security (DHS) medical experts who have spoken out about the inhumane policy of detaining migrant families. The physicians, who have served as longtime DHS consultants and who monitor family detention centers, warned that any planned expansion of family detention will place children and their families at imminent risk of further harm.

Donna McKay, executive director of PHR, said an already-dire situation is growing worse in front of our eyes and that the medical community has the responsibility to speak out.

“Past investigations into U.S. border policies under the Obama and Trump administrations, have revealed consistent and severe negative effects on children. And the recent ‘zero tolerance’ policy has only served to exacerbate the situation and cause a sharp increase in family separations. This clearly inflicts trauma on individuals, especially children,” McKay said

“Now, the government is touting the detention of children with their families as an alternative to separation, yet this practice also inflicts trauma, especially when they are being held in inhumane conditions. It’s no wonder that we are seeing health care professionals – including the government’s own medical experts – speaking out against this. The situation is urgent and health professionals are right to sound these alarm bells for all to hear.  These actions are causing irreparable damage to children, and that is why it needs to end now,” she added.

Kathryn Hampton, PHR’s Asylum Network program officer, said the conditions enforced by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), under which migrants are being detained, are severely restrictive, with no discretion allowed for the release of families, asylum seekers with no criminal record, pregnant women, or those with health conditions.

“Tent cities are reportedly under construction on military bases, which means that the administration is effectively institutionalizing family detention, and it is doing so under the guise of immigration enforcement,” Hampton said.

“While policies have always been flawed, even under the Obama administration, we are now seeing indications of a systematic ramping up of detention settings, such as the  proposed tent cities, which are barbaric and guaranteed to cause long-term mental and emotional trauma and harm to those detained, especially the children,” Hampton added.

PHR has documented the harms of indefinite detention, particularly on non-citizens. While releasing individuals with ankle monitors is proposed as an alternative, the monitors are invasive, stigmatizing, and dehumanizing. In stark contrast, case management approaches within the community have proven to be highly effective in ensuring compliance with immigration proceedings. Therefore, PHR advocates for community-based alternatives to detention.

“Most individuals surveyed by PHR attributed a number of severe mental health symptoms largely to their detention, and many believed their physical health worsened while in detention,” explained Hampton.

“Mental health concerns resulting from detention include severe and chronic anxiety and dread; pathological levels of stress that have damaging effects on the core physiologic functions of the immune and cardiovascular systems, as well on the central nervous system; depression and suicide; post-traumatic stress disorder; and enduring personality changes and permanent estrangement from family and community that compromise any hope of the detainee regaining a normal life following release.”

Continued detention also violates the prohibition against torture and ill-treatment under U.S. and international law. The UN Special Rapporteur on torture has unequivocally stated that ill-treatment can amount to torture if it is intentionally imposed “for the purpose of deterring, intimidating, or punishing migrants or their families, [or] coercing them into withdrawing their requests for asylum”.

This is not the first time that government experts have revealed grave deficiencies in the ICE detention system. Last month, the DHS inspector general released a report on an investigation into how ICE monitors its detention facilities. The findings were summed up in the document’s title: “ICE’s Inspections and Monitoring of Detention Facilities Do Not Lead to Sustained Compliance or Systemic Improvement.”

“We, at PHR, support the efforts of the two DHS experts to escalate their concerns in the face of cruelty and inaction, regardless of which administration is in charge,” McKay said. “Health professionals have an ethical duty to speak out and act to protect people, particularly children, and to intervene in policies likely to harm children. Health professionals are ethically committed to do no harm and to report abuses, including torture and ill-treatment. Children and families seeking refuge are already traumatized, and placing them in harmful detention settings only compounds that trauma.

“It is absolutely critical for health professionals to support an end to family detention and to follow their professional obligation to report harm and prevent abuses, whenever and wherever they occur.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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