The treatment of children at the US border is more than a political crisis

“The only buffer you have is a parent. Take that away, and everything falls apart.”
“The only buffer you have is a parent. Take that away, and everything falls apart.”
Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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Last week, US Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer became the latest Democrat to visit a migrant detention facility at the US-Mexico border. He described the conditions, particularly for children, as “inhumane” and “awful.”  In response, president Donald Trump tweeted a request to meet with Schumer to discuss what both sides of the political spectrum agree has evolved into a crisis.

Conditions at the US-Mexico border have become the latest proxy for a longstanding political fight in the US over immigration. But behind the fight over politics and policy, a developmental crisis is unfolding, one with longstanding consequences.

Schumer’s visit comes in the wake of a wave of on-the-ground reports showing that some migrant children have been held separately from their parents or guardians in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in CBP facilities along the US’s southern border. In one detention center in Clint, Texas, children reportedly couldn’t brush their teeth, take showers, or wash their clothes. Some very young children soiled themselves because they didn’t have diapers. They were fed poorly and irregularly and some had no beds to sleep on. When they got sick, they had difficulty accessing medical care.

Some of these children crossed the border unaccompanied, or with adults who were not their legal guardians. Some were forcibly separated from their parents by the US government at the border. Either way, the developmental consequences of experiencing these conditions can be long-lasting and severe.

As we wrote last year at the height of the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families, when children are forcibly, abruptly taken away from a parent or trusted caregiver, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood their systems. Over time, those hormones can start killing off neurons, causing both short- and long-term consequences that may create learning and behavioral problems.

“Here we have taken away what science has said is the most potent protector of children in the face of any adversity—the stability of the parent-child relationship,” Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, told Quartz about family separations in 2018. “This is not a scientific issue—it’s a fundamental, moral disaster.”

Nadine Burke Harris, California’s surgeon general and a child development expert, explained in a recent editorial for The Washington Post that sustained, “toxic” levels of stress, without the buffer of a loving parent or family member, can impair kids’ development for the rest of their lives. “Children require the nurturing care of a trusted adult to shut off the stress response,” she writes. “Without this, kids are at high risk of long-term changes in brain structure and function, weakening of the immune system, and impairment of hormonal levels.” Studies have shown that these kinds of changes can shorten life expectancy “by decades.”

It’s hard to overstate the effect that stressful detention conditions without the buffer of a parent can have on kids’ development, especially those younger than five years old. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a senior fellow at Brookings and child development expert, writes that “cleanliness, sleep, nutrition, and exercise are imperative for a growing brain.” Bad food, a lack of sleep and physical activity, and a disease-ridden environment impact brain development and normal physical growth and can lead to depression.

The developmental damage of being separated from a parent may be compounded by a dangerous journey to the border that an increasing number of children are attempting to do alone. So far in 2019, CBP has apprehended 63,624 minors traveling alone at the southern border. In 2018, it was 50,036, and in 2017, 41,435.

The Trump administration said it would end its policy of forced family separations last year, following a public outcry. But this process never completely stopped. Acting secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan recently testified that, in 2019 so far, about 1,000 children were separated from their parents or legal guardians at the border. This doesn’t include children who were separated from other family members or accompanying adults.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says separations happen when the agency has a reason to believe the child is in danger from their guardian or at risk of getting sick. But activists on the ground say that separations can happen for tenuous reasons.

A CBP spokesperson told Quartz in an email that about 400 unaccompanied minors remain in Border Patrol facilities, down from a peak of 2,700 in June. CBP, she said, “leverages our limited resources to provide the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children.” She said the agency had hired more medical personnel and contractors to “ensure regular availability of appropriate food, water, sanitation, and hygiene in all of its facilities.”

But she clarified that “short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations,” and that CBP needed more funding. Earlier this month, president Trump signed a bill allocating $4.6 billion for the border crisis—a move that has divided Democrats but that CBP said has already helped improve conditions at detention facilities.

Whatever the reason for children being separated from their families, or for the conditions they are facing, developmental experts like Burke Harris consider the situation at the border to be an issue of “medical science,” not politics.

“The physical toll placed on these young, growing bodies and brains comes at a tremendous cost to the individuals, their families and communities, and ultimately, to our national conscience,” she writes. “Regardless of what one thinks about immigration, there’s one price no child should have to pay: a shortened life.”

Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. 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.