ResourcesPress Release

Physicians for Human Rights Asylum Network Member Testifies Before Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee on Mistreatment of Migrant Children at the Border

WASHINGTON – Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) Asylum Network member and child psychiatrist Dr. Amy Cohen testified before the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee on July 23 as part of a hearing on the treatment of children at the U.S. southern border. PHR has conducted research into the medical conditions at the border and is advocating for the U.S. government to end the detention of children and the separation of families, and to implement policies that allow migrants at the border to access their legal right to seek asylum.

The hearing, “America Speaks Out: Stop Trump’s Cruel Treatment of Children at the Border,” was led by U.S. Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who heard testimony from medical and legal experts who have witnessed the troubling conditions at the border.

Dr. Cohen’s full testimony follows below and is online. Among the points she emphasized in her prepared remarks are the excerpts below:

“Today I will ask you to look beyond the border and to listen to what we are doing to the tens of thousands of children currently in government detention. I will ask that you embrace the full and true picture, which shows that this ‘crisis’ is, in many ways, manufactured. The atrocities we are seeing in places like Clint and Ursula are not – as some would have us believe – the consequence of a migrant ‘surge,’ but rather of U.S. policies and procedures which result in the unnecessary, protracted, and damaging detention of children who belong instead with family, with sponsors, and in communities.

“These children are coming because of the terrifying, life-threatening conditions they face in their home countries, where their local agencies of government can’t or won’t protect them. Unfortunately, our policies of removing these children from their family and subjecting them to protracted detention pile trauma upon trauma. The terrible toll exacted on children when separated from their parents is the most extreme trauma that a child can endure. It often results in something we call “toxic stress” – a condition which impacts many systems of the body, the brain, and the mind, and can lead to irreversible damage, even early death.

“Congress needs a far more robust mechanism to provide the information necessary to inform policy. I would hope to see an independent commission with free and unfettered access to these facilities, one with interdisciplinary expertise which could provide oversight, reporting back to Congress on its findings and studying the impact of current policy on the lives of these children and families.”

Dr. Cohen has extensive experience in child psychiatry as it relates to conditions for children at the U.S. southern border. Since 2018, she has served as a medical consultant to Flores settlement counsel, and has extensive experience evaluating asylum seekers, including children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), as well as conditions of confinement in ORR custody, most recently in Homestead, Fla. In summer 2018, she provided forensic evaluations of parents separated from their children who were detained in Port Isabel, Texas. Since 2014, Cohen has served on the Medical and Scientific Advisory Board of the National Center for Youth Law, which focuses on child advocacy law. Cohen lives and works in Los Angeles.

“PHR is calling on the Department of Homeland Security to cease holding children in CBP detention facilities and to provide adequate standards for essential care of all persons in custody,” said Michael Payne, advocacy officer for PHR. “Congress must ensure that asylum seekers receive timely medical treatment from properly trained medical professionals.”

Additional Background on PHR’s Asylum Work:
As the humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border has become increasingly severe, PHR has organized delegations of medical clinicians to interview children, families, and other asylum seekers as part of its Asylum Network’s effort to evaluate the medical and psychological conditions of asylum seekers. PHR has documented the medical and psychological trauma caused as a direct result of U.S. migrant detention policies. PHR’s findings make clear that it is time for the U.S. administration to end all policies that lead to the detention of children and separation of families.

In June, PHR released two groundbreaking reports on: 1) the medical and mental health impacts of exposure to trauma in children seeking asylum; and 2) how U.S. immigration enforcement is impacting patients in health facilities across the United States. Both reports speak to policy implications and the need for policy solutions, and include detailed recommendations for the U.S. government and other parties.

PHR worked with the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights to produce its report “There is No One Here to Protect You: Trauma Among Children Fleeing Violence in Central America,” which presents the first case series of child and adolescent asylum seekers arriving in the United States. The report cites physical and sexual violence by gangs and family members against children in their home countries, as well as compounding trauma experienced by children in transit to the United States and in U.S. immigration detention.

PHR’s policy brief “Not in My Exam Room” documents discriminatory practices by U.S. immigration enforcement that have led to egregious health care violations, including impeding patient care and neglect of medical advice. The brief details harsh immigration enforcement actions within the militarized border zone which are violating patient rights and creating widening racial and ethnic health disparities as well as putting the health care of patients and the ethical obligations of medical professionals at risk.

PHR has repeatedly called on the U.S. administration to guarantee the basic health of individuals in its custody and provide adequate medical treatment of children affected by trauma in regard to both physical and mental health.

PHR Resources on Asylum and the U.S. Border
Mobilization/Photos: “Doctor’s Orders: Close the Camps” – a gathering of medical professionals in front of the White House after a PHR-organized letter to the Trump administration signed by almost 25,000 people was delivered to the Department of Homeland Security, July 16, 2019
Report: “There is No One Here to Protect You,” June 10, 2019
Press Release: “Asylum-Seeking Children from Northern Triangle Suffer Multi-Dimensional, Recurrent, Sustained Trauma,” June 10, 2019
Policy Brief: “Not in My Exam Room,” June 10, 2019
Press Release: “U.S. Immigration Enforcement Practices Violate Patient Rights and Medical Ethics,” June 10, 2019
Fact Sheet: “Establishing Sanctuary Hospitals: Protecting the Right to Access Health Care,” June 10, 2019
Fact Sheet: “Health Risks of Customs and Border Protection Detention,” July 2019

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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