La Grulla, Texas, USA – A Border Patrol agent takes a 14-year-old Honduran boy into custody after apprehending him on the banks of the Rio Grande River attempting to enter the United States illegally.

June 20
Trauma on the Border

The Issue

Recently,  the Trump administration announced it had started a “zero tolerance” policy for undocumented immigrants, with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (HHS) teaming up to criminally prosecute all individuals caught illegally crossing the southwest border and separate immigrant children from their parents.

It appears this change in policy occurred before border officials were fully prepared to implement the new policy of “zero tolerance” prosecution and family separation: there are various reports of overcrowding and understaffing in detention facilities, inadequate mental health resources for separated family members, and questionable standards of care and schooling for the young children now in government custody.

The Department of Homeland Security confirms 1,995 immigrant children were separated from their parents between April 19 and May 31.

Traumatic Impact for Immigrant Children and Parents
There are various detention centers now housing immigrant children that have been separated from their parents, including centers for children 12 years of age and younger. Various sources are reporting that the forced separation of families ― particularly families with young children ― is having traumatic impacts on children and adults alike.

Without the comfort of family in detention, immigrant children often suffer from high and unabated stress levels. Sustained stress of this kind triggers the release of cortisol, a “fight-or-flight” hormone.

Cortisol, in high and/or ongoing doses, can disrupt the synapses and the neurological connections that are part of the developing brain and have a long-lasting impact on cognitive and emotional functioning. (The separated parents of these children are subject to similarly negative health consequences.) Children are being kept inside for 22 hours each day, have no privacy in their use of restroom facilities, and sleep in open and shared spaces.

The government is currently deporting parents while their children remain in custody.

It appears the government currently has no plan for how to reunite the detained children with their families.

The System at a Breaking Point
The sharp increase in prosecutions and detentions is coming at a time when detention centers are understaffed and unequipped to deal with the trauma being experienced by these children and families, and the government’s ability to process the increased number of detained immigrants is being pushed to a breaking point.

United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is moving detained immigrants into federal prison to help alleviate overcrowding in detention centers. Some of the facilities currently being used to detain children are experiencing crowded and unsanitary conditions. In one Texas center, detained children obtain schooling in either of two shifts: a six-hour morning session or an afternoon session of equal length.


The Process

Upcoming House Vote
This week, members of the United States House of Representatives are scheduled to hear and debate two competing immigration bills. One of the bills is more conservative and proposes more restrictive immigration measures. The other represents more of a compromise between Republican and Democratic members of the House. Both bills are, at present, unlikely to pass. Even if either bill were to pass the House, they would both be unlikely to be approved by the U.S. Senate.

The President Can End This Practice at Any Time
But these facts belie a simple truth: President Trump can permanently end this practice at any time. At present time, it appears the president has signed an executive order continuing “zero tolerance,” but placing a temporary hold on the separation of families while Congress considers various pending bills related to immigration.

It bears mentioning that this change is by all appearances only temporary.

The “zero tolerance” and family separation policy was created by the Trump administration and can be conclusively, permanently ended by the administration at any time, without Congressional action and without the need for a formal executive order.

It is unclear to what degree today’s executive order envisions the indefinite detention of children while their immigration cases are waiting to be adjudicated.

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