The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG)’s new report found the Trump administration’s policy changes in 2018 exacerbated the mental health needs of “unaccompanied alien children” in their custody. The unaccompanied alien children in this study are overwhelmingly asylum seekers from Central America. No one should be surprised that the OIG found two particular policies — separating children from their parents and prolonging the time children are in custody — are especially harmful to the children’s mental health.
Researchers, mental health professionals and policymakers have known for years that refugee children are likely to have experienced traumas that challenge their mental health. Studies in the United States and in Europe have established that asylum-seeking children and adolescents are likely to have post-traumatic stress symptoms, anxiety, depression and externalizing behaviors. Given that the escape of many of these Central American children was prompted by violence and deprivation in their home countries, they certainly are at high risk of developing mental disorders.
Last year I wrote that the Trump administration “knew it would cause lasting harm, and still took children from parents.” In July 2018, Jonathan White, the former deputy director of children’s programs in the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), testified to Congress that he had warned administration officials, early in the discussions to ramp up the zero tolerance toward asylum seekers, about the harm such policies pose to children. White argued that the separation of children from parents entails “significant risk of harm to children” as well as “psychological injury.” But administration officials overruled White.
The policy of family separation happens less frequently now; the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that 911 children were taken from their asylum-seeking parents in the year after the June 26, 2018, court order to stop the practice. About 30 children whom DHS took from their parents during the peak of the policy in 2018 still remain separated from their parents. The new OIG report documents the deleterious effects this policy has had on the mental health of these children.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform in July released a report of their investigation of the child-separation policy. The committee’s set of findings on how long children were held in custody is among the deeply troubling results — and not just because they found evidence the administration violated federal law on how long DHS can hold a child in detention. After DHS transferred custody to ORR, the committee reports that “records show that children of all ages were held in ORR custody for extensive periods of time.” The average was 90 days, with some children in ORR custody for more than 18 months.
When the committee’s findings are overlaid on the OIG study, the picture of the extensive damage to children’s mental health becomes even sharper. More precisely, the other policy the OIG found that was especially damaging to asylum-seeking children is the practice of prolonging the time children are in custody. “Facilities reported that children with longer stays experienced more stress, anxiety, and behavioral issues, which staff had to manage. Some children who did not initially exhibit mental health or behavioral issues began reacting negatively as their stays grew longer.”
If you are thinking that these compelling, thorough reports are prompting an end to this human tragedy — enter stage right the new DHS rule for the “Apprehension, Processing, Care and Custody of Alien Minors and Unaccompanied Alien Children.” This regulation takes aim at the 1997 court-ordered consent decree, known as the Flores settlement, that limits the detention of children and set standards for their care. Among other things, the new rule would allow DHS to indefinitely detain migrant families, including those arriving to seek asylum. Administration officials assured that they would provide high standards for the care of children. The official press release stated “all children in the Government’s care will be universally treated with dignity, respect and special concern, in concert with American values and faithful to the intent of the settlement.”
However, the new rule eliminates the requirement that facilities holding families with children be state-licensed facilities. DHS would be responsible for licensing the family detention centers. Given the reports this summer of squalid conditions at facilities overseen by DHS, including a scathing “management alert” report by DHS’s Office of Inspector General, a new policy of prolonged detention of families and children seeking asylum is frightful. Attorneys general representing 20 states have sued to stop the policy change.
Two wrongs don’t make a right — but they do make a place in this administration’s immigration policies.
Ruth Ellen Wasem is a professor of policy practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration. Follow her on Twitter @rewasem.