National News

Reuniting and Detaining Migrant Families Pose New Mental Health Risks

Posted June 22, 2018 10:36 p.m. EDT

The chaotic process of reuniting thousands of migrant children and parents separated by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy poses great psychological risks, both short- and long-term, mental health experts said Friday. So does holding those families indefinitely while they await legal proceedings, which could happen under the president’s new executive order.

The administration has no clear plan to reunite migrant families, which is sure to carry a psychological price for migrant parents and more than 2,300 children separated from them at the border in recent months. More than 400 are under age 12, and many are toddlers.

But the alternative of keeping those families in camps, on military bases and in other facilities for long periods of time while they work their way through the legal and asylum systems will quite likely impose its own trauma, as it did for families of Japanese descent held by the United States in internment camps during World War II.

“People have been very focused on technical pieces of this process, and the egregiousness of children in cages,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center, an advocacy group based in San Francisco and focused on protecting the rights of children. “But they’re not thinking about most basic fundamental trauma we’re inflicting on people.”

On Friday in The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Fiona Danaher, a pediatrician at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston, warned that traumatic experiences like those experienced by migrants could lead to “changes in physiology that promote physical and mental illness throughout the life course.”

The effects can be felt for generations, she noted.

— The risks of reunification

Already, mental health experts said in interviews, two psychological undercurrents are in motion among the separated migrant families: one individual, the other collective.

At the individual level, many of the parents torn from their children will not have easy reunions, experts said.

“I would want to make sure — before any reunion — that the children know that their parents did not want this to happen, and that it was not their own fault, either,” said Brenda Jones Harden, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland.

“Many of these kids will think, ‘There’s something wrong with me, that’s why my parents abandoned me.'”

In a series of studies, social scientists at the University of Delaware and elsewhere have carefully tracked the experience of young children entering foster families by having new parents keep detailed diaries and closely monitor parent-child interaction using standardized checklists.

Young children often avoid engaging a new caregiver — behavior that can in turn put off a new mother or father, creating more distance and doubt in the relationship.

A similar dynamic can occur when parents are taken away and then suddenly reappear.

“Children often adapt to separations by looking as if they don’t need their parents upon reuniting,” said Mary Dozier, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware, who led some of the separation studies.

Parents may feel rejected and react in kind, by acting as if their children don’t need them, Dozier said. “A self-perpetuating cycle can begin. It’s usually resolved over time, but it’s helpful if parents can anticipate that their children may not run into their arms and be soothed readily.”

Children reunited with their parents may also turn away or be difficult to soothe, said Kristin Bernard, a psychologist at Stony Brook University who works with foster children.

Those reactions, combined with the desperation washing through their parents, “may get in the way of parents providing the nurturing and responsive care that children need at this critical time,” she said.

For the youngest children especially, a week or two away is a very long time, a period of deepening uncertainty. The visceral memory of a parent can fade quickly in the mind of toddler, compared to more mature youngsters. By age 9, Jordan Sosa, now 23, had seen both his parents deported to Mexico on drug-use charges.

“I saw my dad being dragged off, and I’m the oldest. My brothers and sisters kept asking, ‘What happened to Dad? What happened to Mom?'” said Sosa, who is now a congressional intern. “I remember I’d wait until they went to bed and then just cry.”

He and his siblings entered foster care in Southern California, reuniting with their parents more than a year later.

“For me, with my mom, it was like she was dead and suddenly came back alive. I had had a relationship with her,” Sosa said. “But for my younger sisters it was like, ‘No, I have a new family now.'”

— Lessons from Japanese internment

Following the president’s executive order earlier this week, the Trump administration asked a U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to alter a consent decree that effectively limits the detention of migrant families to no more than 20 days. The Pentagon has been asked to make room for as many as 20,000 migrants.

The collective mental impact of holding hundreds of families in camps or institutions, for months or years, is hard to measure. Writing in The Washington Post, former first lady Laura Bush, among others, was quick to note that the proposed camps for migrant families are “eerily reminiscent of the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II.”

After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the federal government interned 120,000 Japanese-Americans in about a dozen camps, typically in barracks, one family to a room, and cut off from the outside world by barbed wire. The incarceration lasted up to four years, and most families remained together.

This mass internment is distinct from the current proposal in important ways: The inmates were predominantly U.S. citizens, and they had committed no crime.

Yet many researchers believe the trauma to migrant families could be similar, in terms of rates of depression and post-traumatic stress.

“There are certainly parallels,” said Donna Nagata, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan whose parents met in a Utah internment camp and who has followed a large group of people who spent time in the camps.

In one study, she had 520 of them fill out extensive questionnaires, detailing aspects of their individual personalities and how they coped with the experience of mass incarceration over time.

While their experiences varied, negative effects of the camps remained. “The sansei — the adolescent and children offspring, born in the United States after the war — lived with this sense of sadness and anger over what happened to their parents, and with the realization that a portion of their lives had been taken away,” Nagata said. That is, if they comprehended their parents’ trauma at all. “There was a silence about it, down through the generations, a silence on the part of the parents that only piqued their interest and made them aware that there was a really important gap in their history that they longed to know,” said Nagata, author of the book “Legacy of Injustice: Exploring the Cross-Generational Impact of the Japanese American Internment.”

A woman named Carola, who lives in Western Canada and asked that her last name be omitted because both of her parents are still alive, said her mother spent four years in an internment camp as a child, “leaving her psychologically scarred for life.”

“She was consumed with rage, suffered flashbacks, depression and paranoia,” Carola said. “The experience left her with no possibility for a ‘normal’ happy life. Obviously, my siblings and I also suffered.”