Trauma on the Border
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.
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.
- Principals Condemn Border Policy That Forcibly Separates Children From Families (National Association of Secondary School Principals, June 20)
- Listen to Children Who’ve Just Been Separated from their Parents at the Border (ProPublica, June 18)
- AASA Statement on Family Separation (AASA, June 18)
- AAP a Leading Voice Against Separating Children, Parents at Border (American Association of Pediatrics News, June 14)
- The Children Paying the Price for Trump’s War on Latinos (UnidosUS, June 13)
- Doctors Oppose Policy that Splits Kids from Caregivers at Border (American Medical Association, June 13)
- Policies Threaten Well-Being of Children in Immigrant Families (Annie E. Casey Foundation, May 2018)
- MALDEF and University of Houston – Panel Discussion on the 35th Anniversary of Plyler v. Doe (MALDEF, July 2017)
- Disrupting young lives: How detention and deportation affect US-born children of immigrants (American Psychological Association, November 2016)
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Be a Part of the Process:
- Get Informed: Two Republican members of the U.S. Senate have asked for updates on the condition of the detained children. Read the Migration Policy Institute’s analysis of the two pending immigration bills in the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Take Action: Contact the White House directly with your opinion. Call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-2311 to speak with your members of Congress about the separation of families at the border and about the traumatic effects that this separation is having on families and detained children. Talk with your members of Congress about how and when separated children will be reunited with their parents.
- Take Local Action: Contact members of your state’s legislature regarding whether they are providing any support to the Administration’s current efforts on the border. Contact your state educational agency (SEA) and local school board about these matters. Convene a meeting in your school or district about how to better support immigrant students and their families.