Skip to main content

Trump's Child Separation Policy Will Scar Migrant Children Forever

There are immediate health impacts of a prolonged border detention—and those effects can last a lifetime.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
A child waits in line with his parents for an asylum hearing outside of the port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, on June 18th, 2018.

A child waits in line with his parents for an asylum hearing outside of the port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, on June 18th, 2018.

The average migrant held by immigration authorities will spend 400 days in detention, according to the American Civil Liberties Union—and for so many of those migrant children, those 13 months will irrevocably mar the rest of their lives.

The Trump administration's decision to separate migrant children from their parents at the United States' border has its roots in the stringent border controls America has embraced over the last decade. And while recent polls indicate that, overall, Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea of family separation (though Republicans favor President Donald Trump's policy by some 58 percent, per CNN), it seems as though Trump has no intention of backing down. As a result, those thousands of migrant children caught in limbo must pay with their futures.

This isn't an over-exaggeration, but a fact. A 2016 report from Child Trends, a non-partisan research organization, estimated that some 90,000 unaccompanied minors—so many of whom already endured countless hardships in their efforts to escape their home countries—arrived that year without legal status. For those who must then endure prolonged detention, that confinement can impress further trauma upon those children, anxieties that can have long-term impacts.*

First, there are the immediate health effects of a prolonged border detention, an experience defined by tent cities and enclosed, spartan pens in military bases in several Southwestern U.S. states. The absence of these children's parents—which researchers would classify as an "adverse childhood experience" (ACE)—is a major catalyst for toxic stress, one that "causes disruption in the way the neural synapses connect with each other, in their brain architecture," as American Academy of Pediatrics President Colleen Kraft told Vox on Monday. Kraft continued: "The foundational piece of their health and development is the relationship with their parent. When you take that away, you take away the basic tenets of pediatric health."

Even during the Obama years, ACEs were a certainty for many separated migrant children. While detained children await their appearance in an immigration court, their care is overseen by the Office for Refugee Resettlement, whose foster care system is marred by "sexual misconduct by contract staff in [ORR] contracted facilities [and] extortion scams of ORR sponsor families," according to a 2016 report by the Department of Health and Human Services. And keep in mind, these detention centers follow what for many is a journey defined by hunger, gang violence, and sexual assault. (One professor described the trek as being "as harmful and as potentially traumatic as being in a war zone.")

That build-up of trauma yields fear—and that fear only further exacerbates the stress of a life spent looking over one's shoulder. A June of 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper points to this phenomenon through the Obama administration's use of the Secure Communities initiative, which was established in 2008 to empower federal authorities to check the immigration status of local police suspects in custody. The initiative led to the deportation of an estimated 380,000 undocumented immigrants, a shock to the Hispanic community that the researchers assert cultivated a widespread fear that any participation in safety net programs "could expose non-citizens in their network to immigration authorities." The resulting anxiety led to a subsequent decline in enrollment in the Affordable Care Act and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program among Hispanic households most vulnerable to deportation risks. In effect, then, this fear means children are often deprived of essential resources that could help undo the trauma of detention.

The resulting relative poverty of a life spent avoiding the social safety net means even more stress. Recent studies indicate that low-income students are more prone to everything from chronic illness to disciplinary issues as a physiological reaction to constant, grinding stress. The white, middle-class participants in these studies "had at least two ACEs," Margaret Crotty, executive director of Partnership With Children, a mental-health services non-profit, stated in 2016, but "low-income communities tend to have three or four."

ACEs are a determinant of much more than just short-term anxiety: They can lead to long-term dysfunctions like alcoholism and depression, all by trapping traumatized children in a feedback loop of behavioral problems and punishment. Consider that the Trump administration claimed at the dawn of the president's 2016 campaign that lax border patrols were letting through criminals and rapists to nest in so-called "sanctuary cities" when that was demonstrably not true. The irony is that the prolonged stress of detention is more likely to create the very sort of behavior Trump purportedly wants to fight against.

It's possible that the public outcry over the Trump administration's policy will end up inducing the president to cave in order to save face. To be sure, Republicans in Congress are already drafting legislation to deal with the disastrous policy (despite apparent obstinance from the White House). But recent reports indicate that Customs and Border Patrol detained some 2,000 children in just six weeks in addition to losing some 6,000 unaccompanied ones. To the White House, it's just six weeks; but for those children, those six weeks will last a lifetime.

*Update—June 21st, 2018: This post has been updated to reflect Child Trends' non-partisan status.