The forcible separation of more than 5,000 migrant children from their parents is a stark example of appalling cruelty that comprises a dark aspect of the Trump administration’s legacy — but it is also a fundamental attack on human rights that the Biden White House must rectify.
During the presidential debates, candidate Joe Biden decried as “criminal” the practice of separating children from their parents who attempted to illegally cross the border. He has since ended the Trump-era policies that resulted in separation and recently created a federal task force to reunite these families.
However, these critical first steps should be only the beginning.
Reunification alone does not soothe the physical and psychological trauma caused to children and their families, and does not restore the parent-child relationship that was violated by border agents.
Under the prior administration’s directives, officers were not allowed to pick up or touch distressed children, even in “tender-age” detention centers. This results in critical emotional deprivation that is necessary for regulating children’s stress responses and normal functioning. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics declared the policy of family separation government-sanctioned “child abuse.”
After a review of multiple psychological evaluations of asylum-seeking family members separated at the U.S. border, experts at Physicians for Human Rights determined the practice meets the international definition of torture. As an example of just one complication, even after reunification children experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that may require considerable, time-consuming and costly therapy. Symptoms of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder may persist for years. Parents of traumatized children experience feelings of shame, guilt and other psychological effects that meet diagnostic criteria for mental-health disorders.
These aftershocks do not disappear with reunification.
Beyond development of a family reunification task force, the following are several ways in which the Biden administration can make amends:
· Allow separated families to reunite safely within the United States. Many of the parents were deported without their children. They should be allowed to return to the U.S. to seek out their children without fear of deportation.
· Provide legal protections to these families. The Biden administration should consider creating a fast-track to citizenship, as reparation for the cruelty with which these families were treated.
· Fund psychological treatment and ongoing trauma-informed care for separated children and parents. Due to the purposeful negligence of the Trump administration, many of these children may have been separated from their parents for years. Providing for mental-health treatment is an imperative.
· Prohibit any future form of familial separation as a deterrent to illegal immigration, except in cases of proven, irrefutable child endangerment.
· Press Congress to investigate the alleged human-rights abuses in immigration policy of the previous administration, such as the reported sexual abuse of immigrant children and hysterectomies performed on women in U.S. ICE detention centers. A congressional investigation could help develop a framework to prevent future such abuses.
The Biden administration has promised to “finish the work of building a fair and humane immigration system.” That can only come about by addressing the deep injustices these families face while ensuring that forced separation rarely, if ever, happens again.