Soon after the current administration announced a zero-tolerance policy toward people illegally entering the United States from Mexico, the policy resulted in over two thousand undocumented children being detained separately from their parents since April 2018. The detention of undocumented families is not a new phenomenon: the Obama administration held the record of the most deportations with over two million during former President Obama’s eight-year term. Each administration’s policies differed, however, in their intentions toward detained migrants’ well-being.
The Obama administration’s policy reacted to a critical increase in undocumented families and unaccompanied children, addressing the necessity for sustainable long-term housing, the lack of understanding about immigration laws, and the violence driving migrants to flee their homelands. Despite this focus, the Border Patrol’s rampant abuse of detainees was reported from 2009 through 2014. Federal courts ruled in 2015 that undocumented children could not be detained for longer than a twenty-day period, so their families would need to be released together. The Trump administration’s policy—possibly implemented as far back as October of 2016—was to refer adult migrants for criminal prosecution, sending them to federal jails where children cannot be held. In the meantime, the Department of Health and Human Services was responsible for caring for separated children, but poor coordination between agencies left no system to reunite families.
The Trump administration’s policy has been scrutinized worldwide—the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein cited Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Association of Pediatrics, in condemning the policy as “government-sanctioned child abuse.” Based on her visit to border detention centers after the policy’s implementation, Dr. Kraft asserted that the stress of family separation could “disrupt a child’s brain architecture and affect his or her short- and long-term health,” leaving them “susceptible to learning deficits and chronic conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even heart disease.” The American College of Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association agree that family separation causes negative health impacts—including anxiety, developmental delays, and changes in bodily functions—that will persist for the rest of these children’s lives. The effects are evidenced in public hospitals and clinics where children are now being treated for physical and mental illnesses resulting from the border separations.
By enforcing a policy that causes mental illness in children, the current administration violates multiple human rights treaties to which it is a party, specifically as they pertain to children’s mental health. Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person…punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed…or for any reason based on discrimination” when inflicted by or with the consent of “a public official or other person acting in an official capacity,” unless the pain only arises incident to lawful sanctions. Though administration officials claim that separating undocumented families is lawful, the border separation amounts to torture for children ranging from infancy to the age of seventeen. The practice of separating children from their undocumented parents does not strictly serve to enforce lawful sanctions, as demonstrated by the absence of such a practice under previous administrations.
Additionally, Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights guarantees the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child further requires that all actions concerning children by public institutions and authorities be taken with the best interests of the children’s well-being and be in compliance with the standards enforced by competent authorities to preserve the children’s health. Article 9 requires that children are not separated from their parents against their will unless separation is necessary for children’s best interests, that children have the right to maintain personal relations and direct contact with separated parents, and that separated children and parents be provided information regarding each other’s whereabouts upon request. Article 24 requires effective and appropriate measures to abolish practices that prejudice children’s health.
Technically, President Trump’s executive order in June discontinued measures that resulted in family separation, but the administration has failed to meet a federal judge’s July 26 deadline to reunite families, with over seven hundred children remaining in government custody. The delay is attributed to several factors, including deported parents trying to allow their children to remain in the United States; detained parents being coerced and misled into signing away reunification rights; and ongoing trauma deterring interviews with parents and children. Thus, recovery down the road remains bleak for these children, and the Trump administration may face ramifications specifically for the human rights violations arising from its act of aggressively and purposefully compromising children’s mental health.