Will the Children Tortured as a Trump Policy Tool Receive Justice?
This time we have an opportunity to make right a crime committed in the immediate past while all the co-conspirators and perpetrators are still alive
Well, it was a hell of a State of the Union speech. Throughout it, multiple Republicans rudely interrupted the president by shouting, “Secure the border!”
It’s important to remember what happened when Republicans were in charge of securing the border: their “big new idea” was to forcibly separate children from their parents and put bewildered and terrified youngsters in cages for the world to see.
And then they trafficked and disposed of those children, as if dumping the trash, in a way that “lost” thousands of them.
Last week the Biden administration announced that, so far, they’ve managed to reunite 2,926 of the 3,924 children brutally torn from their families by Donald Trump’s and Stephen Miller’s cruel and criminal border policy. Biden’s Task Force on the Reunification of Families believes 998 children are still missing, trafficked by the Trump administration to places and people unknown.
Josef Stalin is often quoted (perhaps apocryphally) as saying, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”
Our media treated these children as if they were a statistic rather than as individuals: that DHS Task Force announcement last week was a minor, one-day story.
Louise and I have three children. I can’t even begin to imagine — it’s too traumatic to really let myself fully go there — what it would feel like or how I’d respond if a Trump official had taken one of our three children away from us by force and we now had no idea where she was.
Can America summon enough empathy to feel the pain a nursing mother felt when her child was torn from her breast and handed off to one of Trump’s and Betsy DeVos’ “Christian adoption” groups, or to be trafficked into God-knows-where in the US, vanished without a trace?
Each one of these children — both those reunited (after four years!) and those still missing — are scarred for life.
This is child abuse of unimaginable scope and cruelty.
The nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights was given access to a group of asylum seekers and their children who had been ripped apart by Trump’s agents at the border. Their findings, while predictable, are nonetheless shocking.
First, they noted, all of the parents and children who’d arrived at our southern border were already traumatized by the events that led them to flee their homes and the rigors of the hundreds of miles they’d traveled to get here.
“Due to targeted acts of violence in their home countries,” PHR notes, “all parents arrived at the U.S. border having already been exposed to trauma — most often as victims of gang activity — from death threats, physical assault, relatives killed, extortion, sexual assault, or robbery. All parents expressed fear that their child would be harmed or killed if they stayed in their home country.
“In almost all cases, their children had already faced severe harm before fleeing — gangs drugged, kidnapped, poisoned, and threatened children, including threats of death, violence, or kidnapping, if they or their parents did not comply with the gang’s demands.
“Parents were confident that the journey to the United States would result in protection for their children.”
But protection was not what they found when they met Trump’s agents at the border. Instead, they confronted the unimaginable horror of being torn from their children, in most cases as soon as they’d applied for asylum:
“When they arrived in the United States, however, parents reported that immigration authorities forcibly removed children from their parents’ arms, removed parents while their children slept, or simply ‘disappeared’ the children while their parents were in court rooms or receiving medical care.
“Almost all reported that immigration authorities failed to provide any explanation as to why they were being separated, where their family members were being sent, and if or how they would be reunited. In addition, the asylum narratives documented instances of four parents who were taunted and mocked by immigration authorities when asking for the whereabouts of their children.”
The shock these parents and their children felt was deep and long lasting. Something most of us will never have the misfortune to experience.
Imagine if a gang in your neighborhood threatened to kill your child or force her into prostitution, so you gathered up your most important possessions — no more than you could carry in a backpack — and walked from your home with your child for days and nights, braving robbers and rapists, to reach a nearby state.
And, once there, hoping for asylum and safety, a new gang — this time in uniform — took your child from you and explicitly told you you’d never see him or her again?
Can you imagine any worse trauma? I’d rather get a terminal cancer diagnosis than be told my child has been stolen and I’ll never see him again. I don’t think I’d ever recover.
As Physicians for Human Rights noted:
“PHR clinicians chronicled that nearly everyone interviewed exhibited symptoms and behaviors consistent with trauma and its effects: being confused and upset, constantly worried, crying a lot, having sleeping difficulties, not eating well, having nightmares, being preoccupied, having severely depressed moods, overwhelming symptoms of anxiety, and physiological manifestations of panic and despair (racing heart, shortness of breath, and headaches), feeling ‘pure agony’ and hopelessness, feeling emotional and mental anguish, and being ‘incredibly despondent.’
“The evaluating clinicians noted that the children exhibited reactions that included regression in age-appropriate behaviors, crying, not eating, having nightmares and other sleeping difficulties, loss of developmental milestones, as well as clinging to parents and feeling scared following reunification with their parents.”
This crime was perpetrated in our names, yours and mine. We paid for it with our tax dollars.
In 1984 nations around the world ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture. As PHR notes, it specifies that criminal torture:
“[I]s an act 1) which causes severe physical or mental suffering, 2) done intentionally, 3) for the purpose of coercion, punishment, intimidation, or for a discriminatory reason, 4) by a state official or with state consent or acquiescence.”
Inflicting torture to intimidate and punish refugees for seeking asylum is a crime under international law. A serious crime.
And this crime was no accident. In early May, 2018, Stephen Miller called together a group of senior Trump administration officials in the White House to demand they get with the so-called “zero tolerance” program Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had announced nearly a month earlier.
Using torture to discourage people from showing up at the border was an extreme measure, Miller knew, but too many Brown people were entering our majority-White country. As two attendees at the meeting told NBC reporters Julia Ainsley and Jacob Soboroff, Stephen Miller said it right out loud:
“If we don't enforce this, it is the end of our country as we know it.”
The meeting calendar says attendees included AG Jeff Sessions, DHS head Kirstjen Nielsen, professional bigot Stephen Miller, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, HHS head Alex Azar, Undersecretary of Defense John Rood, Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly, deputy chief of staff Chris Liddell, White House counsel Don McGahn, and Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short.
After Miller’s pitch he demanded a show of hands for the president’s brutal and criminal policy; according to media reports, only Kirstjen Nielsen refused to raise hers (but later defended the policy, which she helped implement).
They were all in on the crime. They all followed through with the crime. They should all be facing a prosecutor and a jury of their peers.
And it’s not just a crime by international standards. Section 2340A of Title 18, US Code, prohibits torture committed by American public officials under color of law against persons within the official’s custody or control.
That federal law defines torture as “acts specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”
Three former Trump officials told NBC’s reporters that Miller was even arguing for routinely separating virtually all asylum seekers and brown-skinned southern-border immigrants from their children, “even those going through civil court proceedings.”
This isn’t the first time America has officially visited brutality on non-white people as a matter of policy.
The people who committed the horrific acts of slavery, the slaughter of Native Americans, ran a century of “separate-but-equal,” and interned Japanese-Americans in the 1940s are all dead.
But this time we have an opportunity to make right a crime committed in the immediate past while all the co-conspirators and perpetrators are still alive.
Will Merrick Garland show the same reluctance to prosecute these Trump administration crimes as he’s shown so far regarding the plotters and planners of January 6th? Will other federal prosecutors also fail to seek justice for these children and families?
Or will justice finally be served, so future administrations will think long and hard before again using torture as a policy tool?
If you’d like to share your opinion with your elected representatives, the number for the Congressional switchboard is 202-224-3121. And don’t forget to reach out to your favorite media outlets via social media and ask why they’re not covering this crime more comprehensively.
As a family doc specializing in child abuse trauma, I agree with you 100%. In practice we do have to do more than just think about these unspeakable horrors, we deal with real people undergoing this kind of trauma. Personally I would call what happened to these families - parents and children both - at the border "SOUL MURDER." Justice for this cruelty requires indictments.
Another excellent essay, Thom. At the core is our "war on drugs" which has enabled the cartels, gang violence, rampant corruption and terror in Mexico. We made all this profitable with our draconian drug laws. The teeming numbers of immigrants at our souther border are a direct result of our drug policies.