On Wednesday, June 20, after an onslaught of backlash and criticism from Americans, including members of both political parties, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to end his policy of separating immigrant children from their parents and "keep families together"; a decision that reversed a devastating effect of the very "zero tolerance" policy he had implemented a month prior. "I didn't like the sight, or the feeling, of families being separated," he said. "At the same time we are keeping a very powerful border. It continues to be a zero tolerance. We have zero tolerance for people that enter the country illegally."
Trump has consistently attempted to convince the American people that a strong border, regardless of the consequences, is the price we must pay for a free and safe America (and even though immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than people born in the United States). On June 21, Trump claimed in a tweet, "We have to maintain strong borders or we will no longer have a country that we can be proud of — and if we show any weakness, millions of people will journey into our country."
But Trump's "zero tolerance" gamble isn't just a heartless policy meant to deter other fleeing families from seeking refuge and asylum in the United States: it's a form of terrorism, and the shockwaves are massive. If you thought the crisis was over, I'm afraid it's actually much worse than you think. As Romper reports, the fresh crisis Trump created is really just the beginning for immigrant children and their distraught families, even as he shifts the goal posts for asylum seekers and immigrants alike by the hour.
Last week's executive order wasn't necessary to end the forceful separation of families, but, masquerading as a mercy, paved the way to indefinite detention of immigrant families. The New York Times reports that it called on agencies to create "a system in which families will be housed together in ad-hoc detention centers, including on military bases, that the administration hopes a court will approve." The Pentagon has been asked to prepare a shelter for a reported 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children and as the government, currently, has no plan in place to reunite the reported 2,324 children who've already been forcibly separated from their parents. This is the alternative families face who, by their own accounts, are still willing to flee their countries of origin to the United states so they can avoid death by gangs and other mass violence.
But the greatest crisis is looming below the surface of our collective awareness in viral pictures and on TIME covers. It is a mental health crisis, a trauma crisis, and a public health crisis that will follow these children for years to come; a crisis made in the U.S.
This is not a short-term thing for children who’ve been highly traumatized.
"These kinds of traumatic stressors — and there’s nothing worse for a child than being forcefully separated from their parents — are associated not only with later social, emotions, psychological problems, but also with later-in-life increases risks of serious health issues," Janet Shapiro, the Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College and Director of the Center for Child and Family Wellbeing, tells Romper. "In addition to the individual trauma of individual children and families, these kind of early adversities and traumatic stress raise the risk for physical health problems. This is not a short-term thing for children who’ve been highly traumatized."
According to Shapiro, the traumatic stress these children have already experienced can lead to neurological changes in brain development, which can lead to poor outcomes in capacity of social relationships, information processing, and being able to experience and manage emotions. A cascading effect can occur, which puts these children at risk for other issues like substance abuse, mental-health difficulties, and adverse stress reactions. "We worry about the sort of cascading affect to these traumatic experiences if children don’t have access to protective factors."
So far, these children have not been able to access any "protective factors" that would shield them from the ongoing impacts of the traumatic stress this administration purposefully hoped would be an immigration and asylum-seeking deterrent.
Dr. Colleen Kraft, the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics, visited a small immigrant children shelter in Texas. There, she told the Chicago Tribune that she witnessed a small toddler crying uncontrollably. "The staff gave her books and toys — but they weren't allowed to pick her up, to hold her or hug her to try to calm her," she said. "As a rule, staff aren't allowed to touch the children there."
Providing basic needs like shelter and food — and even toys, books, and television — cannot replace the intrinsic need a child has for meaningful connection with other people. Shapiro explains that children require relationships with attachment figures who are consistently available to provide nurturance, be responsive to their needs, and to be in communication and close contact with them. "For young children, lack of access to attachment figures is among the most frightening, most disorganizing, most developmentally disruptive things that you can do."
The prevailing notion that these children are being provided adequate care that somehow diminishes the trauma they're enduring is a message perpetuated by Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who said, "We have high standards. We give them meals. We give them education. We give them medical care. There’s videos; there’s TVs." But that message ignores a very important key of child development and wellbeing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, and in collaboration with other research partners, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death. As a result, the CDC "promotes lifelong health and well-being through Essentials for Childhood — assuring safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for all children."
But the children being detained, especially without their families, are not being exposed to nurturing relationships and environments. And this kind of neglect and traumatic stress can alter their development. "In a foster-care system, for example, where we see rows of cribs where kids weren’t being soothed and weren’t being touched, eventually those kids stopped caring because no one was responding to them," Sandy Santana, executive director of Children's Rights, an organization that works with kids in the foster-care system, tells Romper. "And over time they developed no ability to attach to an adult. Not only did it lead to brain impairment, but an attachment disorder, that meant the kids developed a lifetime of inability to develop relationships with adults."
(There is a wealth of research on this area, such as this study published in the Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatric journal.)
The way the administration has discussed these children and their families — calling them animals and claiming they're "infesting" the country — and the way those messages have been regurgitated, in some form, by some of the agents tasked with watching over these detained children has and will continue to compound the trauma and stress they're enduring. From shocking audio of Border Patrol agents mocking children crying out for their mothers and fathers, to reports of agents verbally abusing children (as well as physically and sexually abusing them), all these actions can impact how these children process what's going on and, essentially, who they blame.
These children, by virtue of being children, are primed to blame themselves for the very trauma and abuse inflicted upon them and their families.
"Children, especially young children, tend to see themselves as central in terms of what happens to them," Shapiro says. "From a cognitive perspective, children tend to understand the world in an ego-centric way, which means they see themselves as a causal agent in all the things that happen to them and around them."
These children, by virtue of being children, are primed to blame themselves for the very trauma and abuse inflicted upon them and their families. They're primed to internalize these messages and see themselves as responsible for either the separation in their family or for the situation that they’re in, and that could, over time, devastated their developing sense of self and their view of their situation.
The United States government is traumatizing children, then creating an environment that convinces those very same children that it's their fault.
What the Trump administration has done — what the American people have allowed to occur in our name — is traumatize children in such a devastating way that the affects will likely say with them for the rest of their lives. Even when the family separations end, when the Trump administration ends, and when these families are, hopefully, reunified, the damage will continue; a never-ending ripple in the lives of thousands upon thousands of human beings.
"One of the things that we worry about is the impact of traumatic stress on parents," Shaprio says, "and the challenge they will face, hopefully, when they are reunited with their children. Not only [will they be] managing their own traumatic stress reaction, but [they'll be managing] their children’s traumatic stress reaction, because these things don’t disappear."
The least we can do, as Americans complicit in the continued trauma of children, is continue to pay attention. We can continue to donate to the ACLU, RAICES, the Texas Civil Rights Project, and other organizations that have been representing and supporting immigrant families long before this issue overwhelmed the collective consciousness of the American people. We can keep demanding the government implement a plan for reunification, and insist it bring back the Family Case Management Program (FCMP), a pilot program that was more successful, and cheaper, than the "zero tolerance" policy currently in place. Because indefinite family detention isn't an answer. Tent cities aren't the answer. Housing immigrant families on military bases isn't the answer.
Because Trump's failed family separation policy isn't another bankrupted Atlantic City Casino, or defunct for-profit university, or discontinued brand of steaks. This time, he played with innocent lives and, when he lost, he dealt these children a lifetime of trauma that will remain long after the American people have removed him from office.