May 24, 2021

Department of Homeland Security Medical Experts Call Upon Congress to Address Ongoing and Future Harm to Migrant Children and Families from Detention

WASHINGTON—Today, our clients Drs. Scott Allen and Pamela McPherson submitted a whistleblower disclosure to Congress raising concerns about the substantial danger to the health and safety of immigrant children and their families that is a direct consequence of current asylum and detention processes.

Drs. Allen and McPherson are physicians—respectively an internist and a child/adolescent psychiatrist with expertise in medical care in detention settings—who currently serve as medical and mental health subject matter experts in detention health for the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (DHS CRCL).

Drs. Allen and McPherson have conducted numerous investigations of immigration detention facilities on CRCL’s behalf over now three administrations. In each one, they have raised concerns internally about the harms to children posed by detention settings, which include mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidal or self-harming behaviors, neurodevelopmental disabilities, and chronic medical diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

In July 2018, they first raised concerns to Congress warning about the risk of harm to children and families in detention when the Trump administration began increasing numbers of children in detention. Drs. Allen and McPherson, knowing the harms posed by detention would be exacerbated by the systemic weaknesses they found in the course of their inspections that put children at even greater risk, felt compelled to speak out to prevent imminent harm to children.

In their letter today, reported by the New York Times, Drs. Allen and McPherson remain concerned that despite the strides taken by the current administration to reduce the number of unaccompanied minors and length of time spent in detention, there are still hundreds of children detained at DHS facilities who are then just being moved to other detention settings with the Department of Health and Human Services. They are further concerned that the continued application of Title 42, implemented during the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration to prohibit entry to the U.S. to control the spread of COVID-19, is creating a churn of child detention and thus foreseeable harm. Since children are exempt from this policy, there is an influx of unaccompanied minors sent across the border to be held in detention apart from their families. Although the CDC’s top scientists and expert epidemiologists have never found a legitimate basis for implementing Title 42, its continued use drives both separation of desperate families from children on the Mexican side of the border, followed by harmful detention of those children once admitted.

Drs. Allen and McPherson have called on Congress to ensure that the protection of migrant children and families is paramount and informs immigration policies and practices. They specifically recommend:

  1. the abolishment of detention of children in favor of a community-based asylum process,
  2. the abolishment of family detention in favor of a community-based asylum process supported by established humanitarian agencies, and
  3. the end of Title 42 expulsions to allow families with children to cross the border together to be screened and vaccinated for COVID.

Government Accountability Project’s Senior Counsel Dana Gold, legal counsel for both Drs. Allen and McPherson, said:

“In now three administrations, Drs. Allen and McPherson, the government’s own medical experts, have exercised their professional duty to warn about the harm that any amount of detention inflicts on migrant children, which they know from their investigations is exacerbated by systemic failures in detention settings to meet even minimum standards of care. While the Biden administration may be approaching the challenges of immigration with a humanitarian intent, the lack of ill intent does not mean the lack of harm. As long as detention is used as a tool for responding to asylum seekers, we are by policy and practice knowingly harming children. Drs. Allen and McPherson hope that this time their warnings will be heeded by Congress and this administration.”

Contact: Andrew Harman, Government Accountability Project Communications Director
Email:[email protected]
Phone: 202.926.3304

Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.