Family Separation at Border Exposes Children to Potentially Irreparable Harm

Recently, the Administration announced a change in immigration policy that has resulted in at least 700 children being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border since October 1. Historically, crossing the border illegally was considered a civil offense and parents were able to stay with their children while legal proceedings were carried out (for example, to determine whether the family qualified for asylum). Under the new policy, crossing the border illegally is considered a criminal offense. Children are not allowed to stay with their parents while criminal proceedings are carried out because adult detention facilities cannot ensure child safety. The Administration says the change in policy will help deter families from crossing the border because parents won’t want to be separated from their children.

While it’s certainly true that parents don’t want to be separated from their children, families risking the perilous journey and border crossing often do so because they are fleeing incredibly dangerous situations at home and are making their way to the US seeking asylum. This change in policy may not have the Administration’s desired deterrent effect, but it will certainly have other, very harmful effects.

It goes without saying that children need a caretaker. As the scientists describe it, the long maturation rate for humans – into early adulthood – allows our brains to develop and do much more complex thinking. So what happens when children don’t have a caretaker? The research is pretty clear, and UCLA Professors Juvonen and Silvers summarize it well in this Washington Post piece.

“The strongest evidence for the importance of close caregivers comes from children who have experienced caregiver deprivation. Even when their physical needs are met, children raised in institutional orphanages commonly exhibit stunted growth, cognitive impairments, heightened anxiety and stress-related health problems that often persist even after being adopted into highly nurturing homes. Even mere instability of caregivers early in life is disruptive to children’s development. For example, youth in foster care who experience multiple transient placements are significantly more likely to drop out of high schoolbe unemployed as adults and develop mental and physical illnesses.”

As we’ve written about before, strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system creates what is known as toxic stress. Toxic stress can weaken brain development and have lasting consequences for learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. The Center for the Developing  Child at Harvard University leads the research this area, and this short video explains how prolonged exposure to stress impacts a child’s ability to learn and regulate emotion.

Families traveling to the US seeking a safe place to raise their children have already lived through incredibly stressful situations. But rather than working to stabilize their lives as quickly as possible, this policy change makes things worse.

Kelly Whitener is an Associate Professor of the Practice at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy’s Center for Children and Families.