Trump’s Policy Separating Migrant Children from Families Cruel and Unusual
Tornillo, Texas — In June of this year, the Trump administration stated that a temporary shelter for up to 360 migrant children would be opened in an isolated area in the Texas desert. Only five months after this announcement, the shelter has grown into a detention camp housing thousands of teenagers. There are indications that it could become even more permanent as the Trump administration has expanded the facility. Reports suggest it will stay open at least until the end of the year if not longer. The children are held here awaiting a decision on when they’ll be reunited with parents, relatives or sponsors.
Tornillo’s tent city was originally constructed to hold a maximum of 450 children only temporarily, when Trump’s zero tolerance policy went into effect separating more than 2500 migrant children from their families. While many of those original children had been returned to their families, the facility has been expanded to hold 3,800 suggesting this has become a long term policy of the U.S. government.
As of November 27, more than 2,300 children between the ages of 13 and 17 mostly from Central America, were living inside the extensively guarded facility consisting of canvas tents with closely spaced rows of bunk beds. Over 1,300 of these teens have arrived in November alone. These teens were brought to this shelter from over 100 Health and Human Service facilities in 17 states.
Some of these shelters were built for first responders to Hurricane Harvey, meaning they were only intended as the most temporary of shelter and not to house people for long periods of time. They were also not constructed with the needs of children in mind, especially those separated from their parents who are being held in a country they are not familiar with. This has led many to become concerned about the mental health of these children.
Response From the American Psychological Association
The American Psychological Association (APA) has issued a statement expressing their concerns regarding the health and well-being of these children in regards to continuing to keep them separated from their families. President of the APA, Jessica Henderson Daniel stated::
“As mental health experts, we remain deeply concerned about the continued separation of migrant children from their parents pending immigration proceedings or following the deportation of their parents. The longer these children remain away from their parents in shelters, the greater their distress and the greater the likelihood that they will experience long-term negative effects.
Decades of psychological research have shown that children and parents may experience toxic stress as a result of lengthy separations. Toxic stress can cause irreparable harm to children’s cognitive development and can lead to a host of mental, social and physical health problems later in childhood and well into adulthood. These problems can include severe psychological distress, PTSD, sleep disturbances, social withdrawal, substance use, aggressive behavior and a decline in educational achievement.
“If these children cannot be immediately returned to their parents as ordered by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, then they should receive a mental health screening by a qualified health care professional. Based on the outcome of this assessment, they might receive mental health care at the shelter or be moved to a therapeutic foster home to receive the level of care that they need.”
Therapeutic foster care parents are extensively trained to help children who are experiencing significant mental health needs. These parents are educated about trauma-informed care and are required to complete a greater number of training hours than what is required to become more traditional foster parents. Sometimes they are also required to complete a substantial number of continuing education training hours in order to remain licensed as therapeutic foster parents.
Research Related to Trauma in Children
The federal policy of separating children and parents who are caught attempting to illegally cross the U.S., a practice that led to strong criticism since it’s inception, could have profound and long-lasting if not permanent effects on the psychological well-being of the children involved, according to expert Paul Spiegel.
Spiegel is the director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is globally recognized for his research on preventing and addressing humanitarian emergencies. He also served as the chief of public health for 14 years at Prior to joining Hopkins at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Research has shown that forceful separation from parents without reasons being given and no communication with family members is experienced by children as a traumatic event. In regards to these children, considering the violence in their home countries it’s likely this is not their first traumatic event. So the separation being forced on them by Trump’s current policy is undoubtedly adding to the trauma they already have experienced.
Long lasting trauma can affect the structures and functioning of the brain. In children this is especially problematic as their brains are still developing. The persistent stress puts the brain into continuous flight-or-fight mode. While the flight or fight response is essential for coping with immediate danger it is usually short lived. When it continues over time it causes the immune system to weaken which can lead to illness and infections. Chronic stress also can lead to the development of autoimmune diseases, heart and blood vessel diseases and cancer. The constant release of adrenaline can harm blood vessels, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
There are other problems that can be caused by chronic stress that are of particular concern for children. Their ability to learn, memorize, concentrate and pay attention can be affected. Emotional regulation skills can also become a problem and their ability to use emotions properly and effectively can be significantly impacted. There is also the direct problem of the subjective suffering these children experience which is caused by chronic fear, anxiety, depression, uncertainty, unpredictability and loneliness due to separation from family.
There are a tremendous amount of data on the effects of trauma on children, stemming primarily from the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE, study, conducted by the CDC. This study found that traumatic events such as divorce, separation from parents, being put into foster homes or sexual or physical abuse have very negative effects on children. This suggests that even if it were possible to get all of the migrant children currently in shelters into therapeutic foster homes this may serve as an additional stressor not as the resilience promoting influence it is hoped it would be.
From a human point of view, it is difficult to see how separating parents and children because they have attempted to illegally cross our border is warranted or what possible reason there could be for doing so other than punishment. If a policy is illegal, then following the law is the appropriate act. Families caught trying to illegally cross the border who cannot substantiate that they will be in danger should they be forced to go back to their country, should be returned. If it is determined that this law might not reflect what we feel is a fair or optimal way of handling the situation, then there should be a focus on changing the law.
Breaking up families and holding adults and children in camps separated from each other makes little sense. It results in the need for housing facilities, food, electricity and other resources that cost us a great deal of money. Additionally, keeping large numbers of people in confined spaces could lead to outbreaks of disease and illness. But the bottom line is that it is cruel to separate children from their families. It is difficult to see how this would not fall under cruel and unusual punishment, something that remains illegal in this country.
Acting as if placing these children in other homes is a gold standard solution seems like an inhumane option and one that suggests this practice will be ongoing for some time to come. The need for training these families, placing the children, transportation, continuing education for the parents in addition to the cost of the care and education of the children makes this option less than ideal. The research suggesting that placing children in foster homes can also be a traumatic event in their lives makes this solution only slightly less problematic than holding them in shelters.
If these arguments aren’t enough to support reuniting these families then the research that suggests the serious traumatic effects of what we are putting these children through should result in an immediate policy change. The long term mental and physical health of these children are at risk of being permanently impacted as is their overall development. We need to rethink the way we determine policy that involves real human lives, especially when those lives belong to children who rely on us as adults to help them cope with difficulties and navigate the obstacles and challenges involved in growing up. Becoming one of these obstacles while removing other adults from their lives makes us into little more than bullies.