Editorial: When the U.S. uses migrants’ therapy disclosures against them

The U.S. government compelled unaccompanied minor migrants to take part in therapy sessions, then used their words against them in immigration court. Congress should ban this practice.
The U.S. government compelled unaccompanied minor migrants to take part in therapy sessions, then used their words against them in immigration court. Congress should ban this practice.
(Luis Soto / Associated Press)

Kevin Euceda, a 17-year-old Honduran boy, arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border three years ago and was turned over to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services until his request for asylum could be decided by immigration courts. During that interim period, he was required, as are all unaccompanied minors in custody, to meet with therapists to help him process what he had gone through.

In those sessions, Kevin was encouraged to speak freely and openly and was told that what he said would be kept confidential. So he poured out his story of a brutalized childhood, of how MS-13 gang members moved into the family shack after his grandmother died when he was 12, of how he was forced to run errands, sell drugs and, as he got older, take part in beating people up. When he was ordered to kill a stranger to cement his position in the gang, Kevin decided to run.

His therapists submitted pages of notes over several sessions to the file on him, as they were expected to do. But then, HHS officials — without the knowledge of the teen or the therapists — shared the notes with lawyers for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who used them in immigration court to paint the young migrant as a dangerous gang member who should be denied asylum and sent back to Honduras. In sharing those therapy notes, the government did not break any laws. But it most assuredly broke its promise of confidentiality to Kevin, violated standard professional practices — the first therapist involved quit once she learned her notes had been shared — and offended a fundamental expectation that people cannot be compelled to testify against themselves in this country.


Kevin, whose story was detailed by the Washington Post, wasn’t the only unaccompanied minor to fall victim to the government’s atrocious behavior, though how many have been affected is unknown. The government says it has changed that policy and no longer shares confidential therapy notes, but that’s not particularly reassuring coming from this administration. It adopted the policy once, it could easily do so again.

Last week, Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced the Immigrants’ Mental Health Act of 2020 to ban the practice, which is a necessary preventive measure. The bill would also create a new training regimen to help border agents address mental health issues among migrants and require at least one mental health expert at each Customs and Border Patrol facility. Both of those steps are worth considering too.

That the government would so callously use statements elicited from unaccompanied minors in therapy sessions to undercut their asylum applications is part of the Trump administration’s broad and inhumane efforts to effectively shut off the United States as a destination for people seeking to exercise their right to ask for sanctuary. Jeff Sessions and his successor as attorney general, William Barr, have injected themselves into cases at an unprecedented rate to unilaterally change long-established practices and immigration court precedent.

They have been able to do so because immigration courts are administrative and part of the Justice Department, not the federal court system, and as a result they have politicized what should be independent judicial evaluations of asylum applications and other immigration cases. Advocates argue persuasively that the efforts have undermined due process rights and made the immigration courts more a tool of President Trump’s anti-immigration policies than a system for measuring migrant’s claims against the standards Congress wrote into federal law.

Of course, trampling legal rights and concepts of basic human decency have been a hallmark of the administration’s approach to immigration enforcement — witness, for example, its separation of more than 2,500 migrant children from their parents. Beyond the heartlessness of the separations, the Health and Human Services’ inspector general last week blasted the department for botching the process. Meanwhile, the administration has expanded detention — about 50,000 migrants are in federal custody on any given day, up from about 30,000 a decade ago — and forced about 60,000 asylum seekers to await processing in dangerous squalor on Mexico’s side of the border.

There are legitimate policy discussions to be had over how this government should handle immigration, asylum requests and broad comprehensive immigration reform. In the meantime, no government has the right to treat people with such abject inhumanity. History will remember Trump for this, but it will also remember the people who enable such atrocious acts.