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White House Support of Permanent Legal Status for Families Separated at U.S.-Mexico Border is Necessary But Not Sufficient

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) calls on the Biden Administration to take executive action to increase immigration options for asylum seekers

NEW YORK — In response to the Biden administration and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s formal support of Congressional action to provide permanent legal status for victims of the Trump-era family separation policy, migrant health experts with first-hand experience evaluating psychological trauma sustained by separated families are calling on the Biden administration to uphold its commitments to end inhumane and unjust immigration policies. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) urges President Biden to use executive power to take immediate action on securing immigration status, such as issuing guidance for adjudicators and government attorneys to strongly weigh the harms of family re-separation when considering discretionary forms of protection, in addition to returning to global settlement negotiations with the families.

The following statement is attributable to Kathryn Hampton, MSt, MA, deputy director of PHR’s Asylum Program:

“While Physicians for Human Rights appreciates the White House’s stance that Congress needs to act quickly to secure a long-term immigration status option for all separated families, this call for Congressional advocacy is long overdue. This formal announcement of support does not negate the severe harms that the Biden administration is inflicting on families by fighting against them in court and actively defending the legality of forced family separations. 

“Targeted acts of violence in asylum seekers’ home countries have driven already traumatized parents and children to the U.S. southern border in dire need of safety and protection. Upon their arrival to the United States, parents have had their children forcibly removed from their arms – compounding existing trauma and imparting long-lasting psychological disorders. We have an obligation to repair the cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of these families by the U.S. government, which many clinical experts and NGOs, including PHR, have found can constitute torture. When U.S. policy and officials bear responsibility for inflicting harm, the U.S. government must deliver redress. 

“PHR urges the Biden administration to take executive action now to increase settlement options for families while Congressional bills are pending, such as issuing guidance for adjudicators to consider the harms of family re-separation when deliberating on discretionary forms of protection. The White House should consult with affected families regarding the most appropriate means of reparation as they try to remedy this atrocious policy, including covering the long-term costs of rehabilitation, monetary settlements for impacted families, potential prosecution of the officials responsible for the policy and ensuring that family members who were separated, including those that were deported, are found and reunited.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has long documented the adverse physical and mental health effects linked to the Trump administration’s family separation policy, dangerous conditions and grave risks that asylum seekers face in Mexican border states, and the root causes of migration driving asylum seekers from their home countries. 

In a 2021 peer-reviewed study on the health impacts of family separation, PHR experts found that children and parents who were separated while seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border experience severe psychological trauma even years after reunification. The PHR study provides the first-ever qualitative analysis of the mental health effects of the forced family separation policy and shows further evidence of the “zero tolerance” policy’s detrimental effects on the mental health of impacted families.

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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