“You even get tired of crying.”
This is the first sentence uttered by Eddy, 17, in a brief video recorded by the Guardian. The video documents the experiences of him and his younger sister, Lilian, when they were held in child detention centres. Eddy describes the quenching thirst, the feeling of dehumanisation, the verbal abuse and physical exhaustion that the two underwent earlier this year. He says that “to be removed from your mum or dad is like getting an arm or leg removed;” an experience so emotionally painful that it has the power to leave an everlasting scar.
His and Lilian’s experience is, if anything, a privileged one. They only had to spend five weeks in a detention camp, and their family is now reunited. They are just two out of the more than 5,460 children who have been separated from their families since July 2017.
This is a result of the zero-tolerance immigration policy that has been implemented in the United States by the Trump administration. When undocumented parents who cross the border are criminally persecuted, they are separated from their children, who are then kept in youth detention centres for an indeterminate period of time. Everything about this experience is fundamentally cruel for both the children and the parents—from the separation itself to the repercussions it has on the kids’ mental and physical health, even when families are ultimately reunited.
The many images of children crying and clinging onto their parents during separations should be enough to show what a traumatic process a young child undergoes. It is a journey that begins with crying, protest and agitation. The high levels of stress hormones damage impulse transmitters in the brain, and they can disrupt the immune and metabolic system, causing permanent trauma.
This then brings what we know as toxic stress, especially in younger children. Elizabeth Barnert, assistant professor of pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, claims that this “occurs when children lack a loving, trusted caregiver to calm and soothe them in the face of stressful events.” In the case of older children, the reactions are varied and depend on their past and upbringing, but in most cases, they tend to be less life-threatening and more more behaviour-related.
And that is just the beginning.
After the separation, the terrible living conditions imprint the trauma in the children’s lives. Eddy reports how some guards would pour chlorine in the water they drank, making them more thirsty, and how he once had to stand for seven hours because there was no room to sit. Reporter Jacob Sobroff, who visited these spaces, describes the children as being in an incarcerated state; he shared on his Twitter how they eat in shifts and are only given two hours a day outside. Settling into the institutionalised setting is threatening for the child’s wellbeing, since the state of neglect becomes normal when they have restricted access to food, sleep, hygiene and responsive interactions with adults. Harvard pediatrics professor Jack P. Shonkoff claims that this results in the kids “crawling into themselves.”
This suffering is often a long tunnel. Some children are separated from their families for several months, giving more time for trauma to build up and settle in. The general policy is to reunite the families as soon as possible, but when this is not possible, the children are placed in foster care or with the closest family member or friend.
The hardships, however, continue; this prolonged stress has effects that, in most cases, will last all throughout their lives. These children show symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD from an abnormally young age; they may become withdrawn, angry or even act aggressively following their experiences. We have already seen this pattern: children who have lived in Romanian orphanages and experienced childhood neglect had less white matter as teenagers compared to children raised in local families. This caused their lack of attention, general cognition, and emotion processing. Dr. Lisa Fortuna, medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, told Business Insider that separation causes “irreversible harm” for the children and families that experience it.
Although the Trump administration has claimed to have stopped the procedure of separation more than a year ago, recent reports have shown that more than five migrant children a day are still being separated from their families.
This is the product of a government that discriminates, that neglects human rights. This is the product of a faulty justice system. This time, it is the most innocent people of all—kids who are, much of the time, clueless of what is going on—who pay the harshest price.
And the world simply watches.
By Sofia De Ceglie