The effects of the of the Trump administration’s family separation policy are playing out tragically, as predicted. We have gone well beyond the pathos of crying Central American children heard on the ProPublica tapes. Now, the children who have been released to their parents are exhibiting signs of anxiety, introversion, regression and other mental health issues. PBS’ Frontline and the New York Times’ Miriam Jordan are among the investigative reporters who have documented and personalized the traumatic results of this policy.
On PBS’ Frontline, Cecilia Munoz, a top domestic policy adviser to President Obama, acknowledged that the option of family separation was raised in 2014 when the number of Central American families seeking asylum began to surge. It was argued to be a possible deterrent to migration. Munoz said the Obama administration quickly dismissed the idea as a bad one.
Noted pediatricians practicing in Texas, Drs. Michael Hole and Pritesh Gandhi, wrote, “Repeated evidence shows how traumatic experiences disrupt children’s brain architecture. Highly stressful events, such as family separation or prolonged detention, can cause stunted growth, delayed speech, learning disabilities and aggression. And extended exposure to fight-or-flight hormones can lead to heart disease, obesity, alcoholism, depression, anxiety disorders and even cancer.”
Some officials inside the Trump administration were well aware that devastating health outcomes would be a direct consequence of the policy, and they made their assessment known. During the July 31 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the policy, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official Jonathan White told lawmakers that his office raised a number of concerns, including trauma to children as a result of policy.
When he spoke with administration officials early in the deliberative process, White argued that the separation of children from parents entails “significant risk of harm to children” as well as “psychological injury.” The expert advice from White, a commander in the U.S. Public Health Service and former deputy director of children’s programs in the (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement, was overruled.
They knew — the Trump administration knew, and acted to disregard children’s health and well-being.
As the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing witness from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) compared the child detention centers favorably to “summer camps,” his remarks went a long way in explaining the attitudes that undergirded the Trump policy. According to Michael Albence, head of ICE enforcement and removal operations, “(T)hese individuals have access to 24/7 food and water. They have educational opportunities. They have recreational opportunities, both structured as well as unstructured.” It was not surprising that the administration witnesses stumbled to answer Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoSenators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall Democrats call out Biden Supreme Court commission Midterm gloom grows for Democrats MORE’s (D-Hawaii) follow-up question of whether they would send their children to these ICE facilities.
Even more disturbing, Albence’s flippant remark about “summer camps” was in response to serious questioning from Sen. Charles GrassleyChuck GrassleyGOP blocks bill to expand gun background checks after Michigan school shooting GOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks MORE (R-Iowa). Grassley brought up the allegations of sexual abuse at detention facilities along the border. “No one, no matter their immigration status, should have to suffer such abuse.” He said that reports of abuse are “unacceptable, and the American people expect better.”
The courts are responding to the abuse reports. Last week, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee cited a “disconnect” in the assessment of conditions at the facilities between those in the federal government who monitor the facilities and the lawyers, health workers and others who are assisting migrants in the facilities. These observers cite problems that include inadequate water and inedible food. Judge Gee is appointing an independent monitor to evaluate conditions for migrant children housed in border processing centers and family detention centers.
Judge Gee also found that officials at a child detention center in Texas were administering psychotropic drugs to children without their parents’ consent and ordered the children transferred out of the facility.
Perhaps the most telling moment during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing came when Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked the witnesses to raise their hands if they felt the administration's family separation or zero tolerance policy was a success. No witness raised his or her hand. Silence filled the hearing room.
It has been six weeks since President Trump signed the directive ending his family separation policy, but the psychological damage done to nearly 3,000 children, many still separated from their parents, will haunt them the rest of their lives. Silent admission of the policy’s failures is not an adequate response.
Ruth Ellen Wasem is a clinical professor of policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. For more than 25 years, she was a domestic policy specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration.