The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy has led to the unconscionable separation of over 2,300 migrant children from their families. Images of children in cages, soundbites of crying toddlers begging for their parents, and descriptions of prison-like conditions paint a picture so traumatic that it will be a wonder if anyone within the administration can utter the words “morality” or “humanity” without irony ever again.
While Trump signed an executive order this afternoon, June 20th, that keeps children with their parents, the children and parents who have already been separated will not be immediately reunited, according to Kenneth Wolfe, a Health and Human Services official who spoke to The New York Times.
It’s clear that these children are currently living the worst nightmare a child could suffer, and it is imperative to remember that there will also likely be lasting, possibly permanent, psychological damage to kids separated from their parents beyond any potential resolve.
“When you get really stressed out, your heart races and you get this fight-or-flight response,” pediatrician and congressional candidate for Washington’s 8th District Dr. Kim Schrier explained to HelloGiggles. “We, as adults, know how to take ourselves out of that. But if you put a child in that state, what happens is that they are getting this rush of adrenaline and cortisol. These are stress hormones. When you take that and basically flood a developing brain with stress hormones, it changes the way pathways form.”
These pathways help our brains to develop natural responses to certain stimuli, including social stimuli. Children who experience major trauma early in their brain’s development are prone to developing permanent chemical responses that are forever linked to stress and anxiety. This could manifest in a number of behavioral responses, from violence to total withdrawal. Either outcome signals regressive development, according to Schrier.
This particular point resonates when you consider who these children are and how they are already viewed by the president and his cohorts. When you have an administration that openly refers to Mexican immigrants as “animals” and “criminals,” it’s hard not to assume that the president and his allies will view any future behavioral issues in these immigrant children as evidence that they were right all along.
“They’re basically creating children who are now set up to fail,” said Schrier. “It’s unfair, it’s inhumane…it reminds me of the darkest times in our world’s history where there’s this divisiveness and scapegoating and blaming immigrants for issues that are happening in our country that have nothing to do with immigrants. Society then views these refugees as less than human — as somehow different from the rest of us, and they’re not.”
Last night, on June 19th, news surfaced of a number of “tender-age” shelters opening in South Texas that will hold toddler-age children who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. But experts say that age has a profound effect on how children process trauma.
According to Schrier, detaining a very young child, whose brain is developing rapidly, could lead to permanent maladjustive behavior. She also noted a link between children who experience toxic stress at a young age and their likelihood of developing chronic diseases later in life, such as hypertension and early heart disease.
“It is so deeply affecting when you have these toxic stressors, when you have a developing brain and what that does to you for the rest of your life,” she said.
It is worth noting that Trump’s June 20th executive order keeps families together by incarcerating parents with their children. But research has shown again and again the traumatic effects of incarceration, which are amplified for children, so this is in no way a real solution to the immigration crisis, nor does it mitigate the health effects of the trauma these children are experiencing.
While Schrier is currently running for Congress on a pro-immigration platform that includes supporting DACA recipients and DREAMers, her focus right now is getting — and keeping — families together, and not in prison conditions.
“I think to wait for comprehensive immigration reform to address the needs of these children is irresponsible,” she said. “Step one is just reuniting parents with children. They should never be taken away.”