How Trickery and Trauma at the U.S.-Mexico Border Aided Family Separation

After days of travel, fleeing abuse or persecution at home, a migrant mother finally reaches the United States, unsure of her fate and desperately seeking a better life for her and her family. Clutching her child’s hand, she’s told by the authorities that someone will look after her daughter while she appears before a judge to explain why she crossed the border and is claiming asylum in the United States. She cautiously agrees, because, in truth, she has little choice but to comply. But when she returns from the courtroom she finds that her daughter is gone, and she’s told that she will be deported back to her country of origin. Her child, they explain, will be placed in foster care and will be adopted by an American family. Furthermore, she is not given any information about her child’s whereabouts. 

During a recent visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, I learned that before President Trump signed an executive order to stop family separation, this kind of scenario played out countless times across the southern border. It was among several horrifying stories I heard relating to the treatment of asylum seekers in the United States and can be described as nothing short of trickery.

Before leaving my home in New York, where I work as the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), I had imagined the focus of my trip would be to meet with partners in the medical field to discuss the traumatic impact that the controversial family separation policy had had on migrant families – especially on children – and to understand how our organization could scale up our support for asylum seekers and the organizations working to protect them. Little did I know that I would hear accounts of heart-wrenching brutality inflicted on children and parents alike – not just through neglect and poor physical treatment at every turn in the system, but often the result of sheer premeditated deceit. Many deportations take place under duress or through manipulation, with mothers and fathers deemed “ineligible” for reunification with their children despite the lack of any evidence that they are unfit parents or that they have committed any crime other than the misdemeanor of crossing the border irregularly. This wreaks profound trauma on both the parents and the children, and results in hundreds of immigrant minors, including toddlers, being forcibly orphaned in the United States.

PHR’s volunteer network of clinicians conducts hundreds of physical and psychological assessments of immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, each year. We hear stories of asylum-seeking families at the border waiting for days – sometimes for over a week – in the baking hot sun, without regular access to food or shelter, and terrified of losing their place in line by leaving, even temporarily. Our volunteers see children who fled violence and persecution in their countries of origin subjected to neglect and abuse while in detention in the United States. Some, who have sustained physical injuries or who are struggling with emotional trauma, do not receive adequate treatment or counseling, and others are held in cage-like settings and deprived of human touch. This treatment and these conditions are inhumane, punitive, and inexcusable.

While the officially-sanctioned “zero tolerance policy” announced by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April was allegedly intended to discourage asylum seekers from traveling to the border in the first place, there is not one shred of evidence that it worked. The overall number of asylum seekers did not decline, and more families are arriving with children than in previous years. In addition, consistent with its practice of treating all immigrants like dangerous felons, the Trump administration has sought to remove court-imposed time limits on the detention of immigrant children. This would allow families, including children, to be locked up indefinitely while their cases progress through the courts. With the erection of a large tent city in Tornillo, Texas, the potential to inflict long-term harm and trauma on detained children increases dramatically. Children do not belong in detention facilities and they do not belong in tent cities, let alone indefinitely.

Today, as a large caravan of asylum seekers from Central America makes its way to the U.S.-Mexico border, we must act without delay to have the claims of asylum seekers heard, reduce harm, and prevent new families from being similarly brutalized. Summarily placing all who cross the border into large tents cities for an indefinite period of time, forgotten and without care, is not the solution. We must fight for a humane immigration system and border enforcement policies that preserve health and human rights. The bottom line is that families do not deserve to be punished for pursuing their legal right to escape persecution and claim asylum.

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