This spring, the White House implemented a new “zero-tolerance policy” intended to crack down undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the US along the country’s southwest border. Among the central targets of this policy are the children of immigrants, some as young as 18 months old.
US attorney general Jeff Sessions announced on May 7 that the Department of Homeland Security would be referring 100% of immigrants illegally crossing the border for criminal prosecution in federal court—and that any minors traveling with them would be taken into government custody. In a speech explaining the new guidelines, Sessions said, “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law.”
This is a major shift in policy, as immigrants previously charged with illegal entry—a misdemeanor on the first offense—had been allowed to stay in family shelters with their kids while awaiting asylum cases or deportation proceedings. Now, migrants attempting to enter the US illegally are being jailed and separated from their children.
It’s clear the separations are already having a devastating effect. One Houston Chronicle story tells the story of a man who was deported—alone—after attempting to cross the border, while his 18-month-old was placed in a federal shelter. Government agents couldn’t tell him where his child was. A story in the Arizona Daily Star reports on a Guatemalan woman begging the judge who sentenced her to serve time for illegal entry to tell her when she would be able to see her 8-year-old and 11-year-old sons again—and getting no clear response.
Heartbreaking as these stories are, the long-term consequences of the separation may be even worse. A strong body of science proves that separating children from their parents causes enduring harm to children’s emotional and mental health, and to the relationship between the child and their parent.
Attachment theory and parent-child separation
Attachment theory, developed in 1958 by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, explains that young children’s sense of security is rooted in their relationships with caregivers, which in turn shapes children’s social, cognitive, and emotional regulation skills. That means separating a child from the caregiver puts the child’s long-term development at risk.
One 2011 study, published in the journal Attachment and Human Development, examined the effects of mother-child separation upon children under two years of age who had been apart from their mothers for a week or more. Most of the children came from low-income families. The researchers found that children who had been separated from their mothers at a young age showed more aggression and negativity at ages three and five, noting that involuntary separations were much more likely to have a negative effect. Meanwhile, a 2009 study of Chinese children who had been separated from their parents found that children whose parents had migrated in search of employment opportunities early in life were at greater risk of anxiety and depression later on.
Because the separations at the US-Mexico border are both forced and unexpected, they’re likely to be particularly damaging for kids. “The physical separation between a parent and child, particularly when unexpected as in the case of deportation, disrupts this essential secure base, risking internalizing symptoms (depression, anxiety), externalizing behaviors (withdrawal, aggression), and social and cognitive difficulties,” as one 2014 study (pdf) of detention and deportation of US migrants, published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, explains.
The effects of being separated from a parent can be difficult even when children are well cared for—say, staying with a grandparent or another trusted relative. But under the new US policy, parents are prosecuted and their kids are taken into government custody. Children are treated much better than their parents—they have to be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours of being taken into custody by Homeland Security, given access to free legal services, held in a safe, sanitary, and “least-restrictive” possible environment, and given time to play outside. But the number of minors entering the US illegally is set to soon outpace the space available for them. So the Trump administration is reportedly considering holding undocumented immigrant children in military facilities.
And there’s reason to believe that the US government isn’t a trustworthy custodian. In 2018, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which handles the placement of undocumented immigrant children into shelters or with sponsors, reported that it could not “determine with certainty the whereabouts of 1,475” unaccompanied children who had previously been resettled with sponsors. And a 2016 report found that the Department of Health and Human Services unwittingly released a dozen minors into the custody of human traffickers.
In an April 26, 2018 oversight hearing, senator Rob Portman, the Republican junior senator for Ohio, gave an overview of the systemic ways in which US immigration officials are failing to enact basic protections to the children of undocumented immigrants. “We need to do better,” Portman said. In the weeks since, it seems, the US has been doing worse.
This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.