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PHR Denounces Executive Order to Replace Separation of Children with Family Detention

Detention of children is inhumane. The United States must adopt community-based alternatives.

For Immediate Release

President Trump has signed an Executive Order to end his own administration’s policy of separating migrant and asylum-seeking children from their parents in the face of a massive public outcry and global condemnation. The order calls for children to instead be detained with their families, as part of the administration’s new “zero tolerance” tactic which seeks to prosecute all immigrants who cross the border illegally. To date, more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) director of programs, Homer Venters, MD, said the executive order is still a cruel measure, and is unacceptable.

“Children do not belong in jails. The new Executive Order simply replaces one cruel action of deliberately breaking apart families with another cruel practice of keeping children locked up with their families. This is profoundly harmful, conflicts with the child’s best interests, and constitutes a violation of child rights,” Venters said.

“It is imperative that the Trump administration swiftly reinstate community-based alternatives to detention, which are humane, effective in terms of both compliance and cost, and which lessen trauma experienced by children and families. It is also of the utmost importance that the thousands of children who have been separated from their families be reunited with them – no matter the cost. So far, there has been no credible indication from the Trump administration that this is planned, or indeed even deemed possible,” Venters added.

Family detention is not a neutral option. Extensive medical research shows that immigration detention is harmful and strongly correlated with negative mental health outcomes. Children who are detained have been shown to exhibit poor physical and psychological health even after a brief stay in detention, which increase the risk of long-term negative effects. Detention has a devastating impact on families, including from restrictions that constrain the ability of parents to respond to their child’s needs in a normal manner.

Kathryn Hampton, PHR’s Asylum Network program officer, said the decision to inflict more harm could not come at a more inopportune time.

“It is a grotesque irony for such an order to be issued on World Refugee Day, given that a substantial number of families being detained are fleeing circumstances of violence and persecution and seeking safe haven in the United States. The so-called ‘zero tolerance’ policy is a cynical effort to chip away at longstanding protections for refugees and asylum seekers,” Hampton said.

In past years, PHR evaluators made regular trips to provide forensic evaluations for children held in family detention facilities. They found that the detention settings were extremely inappropriate and un-therapeutic for the children. Horrific conditions have been reported, including preventable deaths caused by lack of access to adequate medical care.

Psychiatrist, Kirandeep Kaur, DO, who recently carried out evaluations on immigrant children in Dilley, Texas, also called on the Trump administration to treat immigrants humanely.

“As a psychiatrist, I have personally observed conditions in detention centers and they are not acceptable due to a lack of regulation or enforceable standards related to important aspects such as mental health care, medical care or education of young children,” Kaur said.

“The families I spoke with had endured tremendous hardship and most suffered from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Being confined to these detention centers is against international human rights laws and only serves to worsen the degree of trauma they have already experienced. Hence this administration must end this practice immediately,” she added.

PHR maintains that the new Executive Order is inconsistent with U.S. obligations under domestic and international law. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, through the Flores settlement, ruled that children must be released from custody as soon as possible and that, in the meantime, they must be held in the least restrictive setting possible. The Executive Order on its face violates both of these stipulations, as it will result in indefinite detention of immigrant children. Prolonged or indefinite detention violates the rights to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

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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