The detrimental and lingering effects of migrant family separations

In the past couple weeks, immigrant officials at the U.S.-Mexico border have separated migrant children from their parents, prompting national outcry. Despite the signing of an executive order last week to halt the practice, evidence shows that trauma from separation can persist in a child, even after reuniting with their parents.

Children are susceptible to the same stress response as adults. However, not having a parent to comfort or alleviate their stress can cause harmful and sometimes irreversible effects. Their immune systems may become weaker and less able to fend off infections. In addition, the stress response in children can induce long-term effects such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or substance abuse.

Some migrant children are able to join foster parents; however, many others are held at detention centers across the country. The detention centers’ ability to provide support to children is often complex and ambiguous, due to strict rules sometimes limiting physical contact between staff workers and children. Although children crossing the border in the past couple years were predominantly adolescents, many children detained recently are younger than age five and  have very different needs. In addition, even if placed with foster families, children with trauma display abnormal behavior for their age, such as crying constantly, having separation anxiety, and being unable to leave their foster parents’ side. It surely does not help that some of these children are also fleeing violence in their home countries, facing residual trauma from those experiences as well.

A recent executive order now allows families to be kept together when taken to detention facilities at the U.S. border. Moreover, a recent court ruling requires previously separated minors to be reunited with their families within thirty days by U.S. officials. Of utmost importance is the provision of mental health services to migrant children--not only to those separated in the past month, but also those crossing the border today, with or without family. Programs like the Mary’s Center in Washington D.C. work toward this goal, by providing therapy and assisting migrant children in schools. However, public services to aid undocumented individuals are oftentimes limited in the U.S. In addition, many undocumented individuals may find it difficult to seek help due to fear of retaliation. Given the adverse health effects migrant children may face, efforts to alleviate the long-term traumatic consequences of immigration on inculpable and vulnerable minors is imperative.