Health Impacts of Immigration Detention on Children

Health Impacts of Immigration Detention on Children

This blog was co-authored by Brianna Moller, 2018 summer intern

Between April and June of this year, the Trump administration separated close to 3,000 immigrant children from their families as a result of the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy for individuals who cross the U.S.-Mexico border. While the formal policy ended with a class action lawsuit that led to the issuance of an executive order, an estimated 711 children have not yet been reunited.

The trauma of separating children from their parents has lasting and detrimental impacts on a child’s mental and physical health. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) opposed the detention of immigrant children, citing developmental delays, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression as just some of the known effects of detention. Their report explains that when children are separated from their parents, they lose one of their only available resources to mitigate toxic stress and protect themselves from harmful short- and long-term damage to their mental health.

These facilities are also failing to provide even a baseline of care (as required by the Flores settlement). Numerous advocacy groups have reported repeated and consistent noncompliance in various facilities across the country. The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law filed a lawsuit detailing accounts from children detained at Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas being forced to take medications against their will. Children were given multiple psychotropic medications at once, and one child took as many as six medications at one time with instructions to take an additional two “as needed.” Children also reported that medical staff would forcibly inject them with medications without their consent. One child disclosed that his teachers would call medical staff to “tranquilize” him if he misbehaved in class. Another child was told that he had to be “medication compliant” if he wanted to be reunited with his family. On July 30, 2018, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that agents must either obtain consent or a court order to administer these drugs to children in their custody, except in cases of dire emergencies. Despite these court victories, parents and children continue to cope with the effects of detention in and out of the facilities.

Parents who have reunited with their children have reported that the trauma from family separation and detention has manifested in various ways. One family recently reunited with their toddler reported that he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, began wetting the bed, and throws himself on the floor reenacting his father’s arrest at the border. Many parents report that their children did not recognize them after months of separation. One three-year-old boy, after being reunited with his family, would pretend to handcuff and vaccinate people around him, while other children would immediately cry at the sight of police officers.

It is abhorrent that the U.S. uses these practices with anyone, let alone children. Shocking as it may be, we must recognize the ways history is repeating itself given the U.S.’ long history of family separation. African slaves forcibly brought to the U.S. were systematically separated from their families at slave auctions. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Native American children were systematically separatedfrom their families and placed in boarding schools against their will—a practice that has a salient impact on Native American children today. Despite the fact that reports of neglect in Native American populations are no higher than those in white communities, Native American children are 4 times more likely to be placed in foster care because of consistent systematic bias. Shortly after the Great Depression, the U.S. used the very same anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx rhetoric it uses today to justify the forcible deportation of more than a million people of Mexican descent, including U.S. citizens, to Mexico.

In light of our nation’s past and present, we must consider today’s issues as a part of a larger historical pattern. And to prevent further repeating of the past, we must call for the complete abolition of family separation and these systems of oppression that have been plaguing people of color, women, indigenous populations, and immigrants in this country for centuries.

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