Stop the raids—they’re torture, too


by Jerry Kahlert | May 8, 2009 • The presidential ban on waterboarding, laudable as it is, doesn’t end America’s participation in torture. Worksite and home raids by federal Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agents are a classic case.

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The Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis-St. Paul generally uses the United Nations’ definition. The UN defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person …. with the consent or acquiescence of a public official….” for a purpose such as punishment.

Punishment, like deportation, is one thing. But the ICE raids – even the threat of them — are terrorizing, with their prospect of spousal separation and the loss of one or both parents in the case of children

When Ana Abugattas, a Spanish-speaking therapist, counsels Twin Cities women whose husbands have been deported, she urges them to repeatedly tell their children that she loves them and that she will be there for them. Children process parental loss differently than adults do, Abugattas says. They’re afraid their mother will be taken too.

A Minneapolis mother whose husband was deported shortly after the birth of their fourth child said that she had to leave home to find a job to support her family. She also was faced with her children’s emotional needs: “Almost every night they ask me for their father,” she said through an interpreter. “It’s hard for me to answer their questions. So I cry after they go to sleep.”

In a letter to President-elect Barack Obama in January, a Minnesota state legislator asked for a humanitarian moratorium on the raids. The letter by Rep.Carlos Mariani was signed by many of his colleagues at the state Capitol in St. Paul and included four pages detailing the impact of ICE raids in Minnesota.

In one Minnesota town, a second grade boy came home from school after both of his parents had been taken in a raid. For a week the second grader cared for a younger brother before a grandmother arrived. The boy returned to school. But, said his teacher, the once “happy little boy” became “absolutely catatonic.” He did so poorly in his studies that he failed to advance to the third grade.

Raid results are “very similar” to those of intentional torture, agrees Blake Fry, a staff member at the Center for the Victims of Torture. But who can believe that no one in the Bush Administration thought the raids wouldn’t create fear?

Even if the anguish was unintended, the ICE raids continued long after public release of a study for the national Urban Institute on the human impact of raids on meatpacking plants in three states in 2006. The raids had led to the arrests of 912 adults, leaving 506 children with the loss of at least one parent; 80 with no mother or father at hand. The follow-up study of those children reported these findings:

“Children experienced the emotional trauma of their parents’ sudden departure, often personalizing the cause of the separation and feeling abandoned or fearful that their parents could be abruptly taken away from them.

“Mental health experts noted that children’s and parents’ fears and the events surrounding the raids led to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in children …. We are putting the youngest, most vulnerable members of our society at profound risk.”

An updated study for the Urban Institute in March reported that the level of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety in families split by raids “rivaled that seen in war-torn countries like Bosnia.” Frequent nightmares and bed-wetting are common among fearful young children, the report said. It told of kids who “can’t concentrate and are being mistakenly diagnosed as having behavioral problems when their symptoms are actually caused by stress, depression, and anxiety resulting from the raids.”

The ICE raids are another form of American torture. President Obama must sign an executive order suspending them.

That’s why so many of us risked arrest in blocking driveways on May 6 at the ICE facility in Bloomington.

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