CVT Decries Cruelty Inflicted Upon Families and Asylum-Seekers by Trump Administration

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ST. PAUL, Minn. & WASHINGTON — The Center for Victims of TortureTM (CVT) today decried the Trump Administration’s horrifying actions to tear families apart and deny asylum to those fleeing domestic or gang violence.

In recent weeks, key Administration officials have taken President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda to new heights, adopting policies and practices that punish—in some cases intentionally—vulnerable people fleeing unspeakable horrors and seeking protection in the United States. These policies and practices will have a devastating impact on many, including CVT’s clients. As an organization dedicated to caring for survivors of torture and extreme violence, we find these developments truly unconscionable.

Family Separation

In May, the Justice Department (DOJ) announced a “zero tolerance” policy towards anyone crossing the United States’ southwest border. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must now refer all such people to DOJ for prosecution for illegal entry or re-entry. If parents are traveling with children, both will suffer the profound trauma of being forcibly separated from one another—indeed, many already have. Family separation also appears to be occurring outside the prosecution context, and even where families have presented at a port of entry.

White House officials have been clear that the “zero tolerance” policy’s purpose is deterrence: to make the process of seeking sanctuary in the United States so painful and burdensome that future immigrants forgo it, even in dire circumstances. Incredibly, the policy does not exclude asylum seekers, notwithstanding the United States’ obligation to provide refuge to those who face a credible fear of persecution on a protected ground if returned to their home country. Parents torn from their children are herded into an immigration detention system that has proven to be both unsafe and unaccountable. This, again, includes asylum seekers, who are now regularly jailed—and frequently re-traumatized—for the duration of their legal proceedings, regardless of individual circumstances.     

Narrowing Protections for Asylum Seekers: Matter of A-B-

On June 11, in a case called Matter of A-B- that he referred for decision to himself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions unilaterally dismissed years of case law protecting victims of violence by non-state actors. The decision overturned a grant of asylum to a Salvadoran domestic violence survivor who endured brutal abuse from which her government was demonstrably unable to protect her. If that was not disturbing enough, the decision’s dangerous implications—by design—run much deeper, potentially closing off protection for entire categories of persecuted people even before they have a chance to make their claim before a judge.

Impact on Survivors

Many torture survivors now living in the United States, and many others who will decide that they have no choice but to endure the often-perilous journey to our shores, are asylees or asylum seekers. It is not uncommon for their torture to have been perpetrated by non-state actors in circumstances where their government could not or would not intervene. When they arrive with children, those children are almost always secondary survivors (by virtue of their relationship to the adult), or direct survivors themselves.

Torture survivors often remain captive to their traumatic past. As we have explained elsewhere, they are haunted by “intrusive memories, excessive rumination and nightmares, with repeated episodes of actively re-experiencing past traumas.” They have “lost their sense of safety” and “feel that their identity and role in society is erased.” They struggle with “sleep disorders, anxiety, chronic pain, irritability, startle responses, suicidal ideation and depression.”

The Trump administration’s recent decisions will both exacerbate these harms, and inflict new ones.

Some survivors will find the United States’ doors closed to them entirely, and face torture or other forms of abuse upon return to their home countries. Others will experience a threat to “the strongest social tie most people experience:” the relationship between parents and children. As a group of thousands of health professionals—CVT clinicians included—recently explained, such a threat is “among the most traumatic events people can experience.” Forcibly separating children from their parents can lead to “disrupted neurodevelopment, resulting in social, emotional, and cognitive impairment,” as well as “toxic stress,” which “adversely affects brain development and is correlated with increased risk of developing chronic mental health conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and even physical conditions such as cancer, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease.”

Reject Cruelty:  A Call to Action

Largely because of its immigrant origins, the United State is a wonderfully diverse place. That diversity—which CVT celebrates—runs equally to political beliefs and policy stances, as it should. But the Trump administration’s recent decisions to punish, expel and exclude some of the world’s most vulnerable people are about something different. As Senator Patrick Leahy recently, and eloquently, put it:

President Trump’s policy abandons our principles and, indeed, our identity as the moral beacon for the world. Republicans and Democrats must speak with one voice to condemn this cruelty. Family separation is no more a Republican policy than it is a Democratic policy. In fact it is neither. It is un-American.

The United States must not be seen as terrorizing children to score political points. We must not be seen as pursuing policies with the intent of inflicting pain and anguish on vulnerable people. I hope senators of both parties will join me in condemning this outrageous practice of forced family separation. We are better than this. It is time we acted like it.

We agree. We urge other Members of Congress to heed Senator Leahy’s call and to advocate for humane and responsible alternatives to these cruel policies—not ones that trade one set of harms for another.

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The Center for Victims of Torture is a nonprofit organization headquartered in St. Paul, MN, with offices in Atlanta, GA, and Washington, D.C.; and healing initiatives in Africa and the Middle East. Visit www.cvt.org

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