WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is asking that parents of children separated at the U.S.-Mexico border undergo another round of psychological evaluations to measure how traumatized they were by the Trump-era policy, court documents show.
The request comes in a lawsuit filed by migrants seeking compensation from the government after thousands of children were taken from parents in a policy maligned as inhumane by political and religious leaders around the world. Settlement talks with attorneys and the government broke down late last year.
Justice Department attorneys are also reserving the right to have a psychologist examine the children who were separated, if necessary. The evaluations are routine in emotional-damages claims, but these cases are unusual because the government’s role in traumatizing parents and children by the separations has been well documented.
“President Biden called the Trump family separations criminal and a moral stain on the nation, but now his administration is hiring doctors to try and claim the families didn’t suffer all that much,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and a lawyer for plaintiffs in the effort to compensate migrants.
Government attorneys argued that the migrants “allege that their mental and emotional injuries are ongoing and permanent in nature” and that their injuries are directly related to the government’s policy. They say it is necessary for the government to have its own opportunity to examine them.
The requests came in two cases filed by 11 families. There are nearly two dozen similar cases pending in other courts, and some have already submitted to government-requested psychiatric evaluations.
But the parents have already sat for hourslong depositions in which they recounted what happened in detail. Government investigators have said children separated from their parents showed more fear, feelings of abandonment and post-traumatic stress symptoms than children who were not separated.
Some children believed their parents had abandoned them or had been killed. For some, the mental trauma caused physical symptoms, like chest or heart pain, according to a 2019 report from the inspector general’s office in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Parents studied by Physicians for Human Rights, a nonprofit collective of doctors that works to document human rights violations, exhibited suicidal thoughts and suffered a raft of problems including nightmares, depression, anxiety, panic, worry and difficulty sleeping.
Biden administration officials have decried the Trump-era policies. Biden, a Democrat, said during his presidential campaign the policies were “an outrage, a moral failing and a stain on our national character.”
Justice Department attorneys acknowledge in court documents that parents have already undergone multiple mental health evaluations but say an adult-psychology expert found it was necessary to get another opinion, according to court documents.
“It is standard practice for plaintiffs alleging severe emotional injury to be examined by the opposing party’s expert,” federal attorneys wrote. They point to a similar southern Florida case in which a father and child agreed to the same examination and say it’s “well within” what’s considered appropriate.
An examination would take about eight hours, four hours for clinical interviews and four hours of emotional and trauma testing, federal attorneys wrote. It would not be invasive and would happen at an agreed-upon place and time. The previous evaluations were done by experts chosen by the parents’ lawyers.
The two sides had been negotiating a settlement, but then Biden said that families of separated children deserve some form of compensation. An early proposal of $450,000 per person was reported and was heavily criticized by Republicans. When asked about the proposed figure, Biden said: “That’s not going to happen.”
Talks ended shortly after. The settlement talks had also included discussion of granting the families legal U.S. residency and providing counseling services.
There is a separate legal effort to reunite other families, and there are still hundreds who have not been brought back together. The Biden administration has formed a reunification task force that has reunited roughly 600 families.
Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy meant that any adult caught crossing the border illegally would be prosecuted for illegal entry. Because children cannot be jailed with their family members, families were separated and children were taken into custody by Health and Human Services, which manages unaccompanied children at the border. No system was created to reunite children with their families.
According to the government watchdogs, Trump administration leaders underestimated how difficult it would be to carry out the policy in the field and did not inform local prosecutors and others that children would be separated. They also failed to understand that children would be separated longer than a few hours, and when that was discovered, they pressed on, the watchdogs said.