Imagine you meet a child and her family at the border. They are Mexicans. And according to US laws, they are also illegal immigrants.
What do you know about this child? Did you know she might have experienced traumas during the journey of migration? Even before migrating (in the pre-migration phase)?
According to previous research, “at least half of all Latino/a immigrants experienced some type of trauma in their home country.”1
What type of traumas? As I mentioned in a report of a new study, Mexican immigrants, for instance, “report migrating due to fear, economic insecurity, drug violence, and extortion in their home country”; Mexican and Central American women also reported domestic, political, and community violence as pre-migration traumas.2
Traumatic experiences can also occur during migration. The migration journey is fraught with many dangers, such as sexual assault and rape, kidnapping, and death.
Because the current administration’s immigration policies can result in fear, discrimination, and family separation, these policies are likely to create new vulnerabilities which then increase the risk for serious mental health consequences in people who may have already experienced a number of traumas prior to (and during) the migration process.
So when you imagine the child at the border, it helps to remember that this child might have limited psychological resources at the moment to deal with further stress and trauma.
And perhaps the following point is also obvious enough that I need not point it out, but again, we are talking about a child and not an adult. Lastly, the child is being separated in stressful circumstances.
The reason I emphasize these points is that I have already read a number of comments (not on this site) from people saying that children being temporarily separated from their parents is a common occurrence, and that it is not something that we need to worry about; in addition, that children rarely spend all their time with their parents anyways (they are outside playing most of the time), and furthermore, that children are very resilient anyways.
But the children at the border are not choosing to separate from their parents to go do something enjoyable. They are forced to separate.
More importantly, they have no parents to return to, at the end of the day, even if this separation had been voluntary. You see, when children experience something stressful during their time away from their family, they can go home and turn to their parents and be comforted by them. But that possibility does not exist at the border.
Even when children and their parents are detained together the experience can be traumatic enough, but the current policy goes a step further and separates the anxious children from their anxious parents, resulting in increased anxiety for parents and their children.
These children do not know when (or if) they will see their parents again. Who will these children, some of whom have experienced trauma prior and during migration, turn to in such anxious moments and in these unfamiliar surroundings?
As the authors of a petition to stop border separation, signed by over 9,000 mental health professionals, note,
It seems quite clear that the adults who are enacting a Zero Tolerance policy at our borders are not remembering what it is like to be a child. How many of us have memories of our parents suddenly disappearing in a grocery store and the temporary terror we felt? Not only is the terror these children experience at the border not temporary, these children have no way of knowing if and when they are ever going to see their parents again.3
Dr. Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics is particularly worried about younger children. She notes that if children were being detained with their families, at least their caregivers could provide some level of support and help calm their anxious child. But not when children are all alone:
As little babies, we connect with that caring parent who helps us through our concerns with feeding and sleeping and helps us calm down when we’re upset. And for little children, what stress does is it increases their stress fight or flight hormones so epinephrine, cortisol, norepinephrine. And what we know is that in the absence of that loving caregiver, these stress hormones become toxic to these kids.4
Such experiences at this stage in a young person’s life, according to Dr. van de Kolk, a trauma expert, are more likely to have long-term consequences, than if the same experiences were to happen when the person is older; these experiences can result in anxiety, depression, PTSD, but also “more nuanced issues such as difficulty trusting others, forming relationships and regulating emotions.”5
So the question is, how much longer are we going to allow this to continue?
1. Li, M. (2016). Pre-migration trauma and post-migration stressors for Asian and Latino American immigrants: Transnational stress proliferation. Social Indicators Research, 129, 47–59.
2. Torres, S. A., Santiago, C. D., Walts, K. K., & Richards, M. H. (in press). Immigration policy, practices, and procedures: The impact on the mental health of Mexican and Central American youth and families. American Psychologist. doi:10.1037/amp0000184