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A first-of-a-kind study shows the full effect of President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy. Photo: Getty Images

New study shows the mental toll of separating families at the border

“It is apparent that U.S. officials intentionally carried out actions causing severe pain and suffering in order to punish and intimidate mainly Central…

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In the first qualitative study of its kind, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) have found that children and parents separated at the border under the Trump administration experienced severe psychological trauma that some are still dealing with after reunification. 

The study, released on Wednesday, Nov. 24 by the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE, concluded that the separation of 31 parents and children whose case the group reviewed “constitute cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment,” that “rise to the level of torture” as defined by the United Nations Convention Against Torture

“In the cases reviewed, it is apparent that U.S. officials intentionally carried out actions causing severe pain and suffering in order to punish and intimidate mainly Central American asylum seekers to not pursue their asylum claims,” the study stated. 

Under former President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which was fully implemented in May 2018, thousands of children were separated from their parents. 

At the time, administration officials explained that the goal of the program was 100% prosecution of all who enter the U.S. illegally. 

Under the policy, the U.S. government took children from parents, not all who had crossed illegally, and prosecuted the adults. Some parents were deported back to their country of origin without their children. 

After facing immense backlash, Trump signed an executive order reversing the policy about a month later, which allowed families to be held in immigration detention together. 

Clinician experts from PHR's U.S. Asylum Program analyzed 31 medico-legal affidavits of children or parents who faced forced family separation while seeking asylum in the United States between July 26, 2018 and Dec. 14, 2019.

Clinicians reported that most of them met diagnostic criteria for at least one mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. 

Children exhibited behaviors such as nightmares, difficulty sleeping, excessive parental attachment, refusing to eat, and recurring feelings of fear. 

Two children who had long been reunited with their parents still showed intense symptoms of trauma and met mental illness criteria, but neither of them exhibited these symptoms prior to being separated, the researchers said. 

In almost all cases, it was evident that the children had experienced physical harm, including being drugged, kidnapped, poisoned and threatened with death or bodily harm by gang members. 

All parents in the study arrived at the border already having undergone significant trauma due to targeted violence in their home countries, and felt confident that migrating to the U.S. would be safer for their children. 

But both parents and children told the researchers that U.S. officials treated them harshly. Parents said immigration officials forcibly removed children from their arms and transferred them to other facilities as they slept. 

Officials would not tell them why they were being separated, where their child was sent or how they’d be reunited, and they would be mocked when they asked about their children. 

"Physicians for Human Rights has long documented the detrimental effects of forced family separation on asylum seekers, and the findings of this study provide additional medical evidence that the psychological trauma could potentially be lifelong," Kathryn Hampton, deputy director of PHR's asylum program, said in a news release.

The researchers found that in almost every case, therapy, removal from detention and prescription of psychiatric medicines was needed.

“This analysis shows the trauma and agony endured by parents and children who were forcefully separated from one another, and the compounding toll that trauma takes on both mental and physical health, lingers with these individuals for weeks, months and years after they’ve been reunited,” said Dr. Ranit Mishori, PHR’s senior medical advisor and co-author of the study. 

Beyond reunification of parents and children on U.S. soil, PHR is calling on the Biden administration to provide reparations to affected families including a formal apology by the government, a pathway to citizenship, prosecutions of the officials responsible for the policy, and potential monetary settlements for impacted families. 

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