Over the past four years of the Trump administration, thousands of migrant children were separated from their parents, stuck in squalid tent camps on our southern border, and made victims of violence, trafficking and exploitation during their journey and in U.S. custody. These traumatic experiences inflicted grievous psychological damage that can have lifelong consequences. The children also lost opportunities to learn, explore and play—things we value for our own children. Our punitive immigration policies have harmed a generation of children, and we must act immediately to change this.
The Biden-Harris administration recognizes the need for a just and humane immigration system and is prioritizing important changes to immigration policy. Given the harm to children’s development that has been done by our current immigration system and the urgency of addressing this, the new administration should adopt a set of science-based policies that best support children’s needs in its first weeks in office.
For optimal development, children need stability, love and nurturing care. Substantial evidence from neuroscience to economics indicates that the early years of a child’s life are critical for building a foundation for healthy development. What happens during these important years can have long-term and irreversible consequences on children’s ability to grow, learn and thrive—and on future generations as well. In the context of immigration, children’s needs are accentuated. To address their unique and urgent needs, the Biden-Harris administration should start immigration reform with four child-centered policies in its first weeks.
First, prioritize family reunification. The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy led to the separation of more than 2,500 migrant children from their families in 2017 and 2018. Stories of children in cages sparked public outcry, and a subsequent court order compelled the government to reunite families. While many families have been reconnected, as of November 2020, the parents of 666 separated children had not yet been reached.
A strong base of evidence demonstrates the destructive impacts of family separation. According to Jack Shonkoff, director of the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, separation from a parent removes the connection children need with a primary caregiver and subjects them to an onslaught of elevated stress. This stress can cause short-term physical health problems like high blood pressure, headaches and stomachaches, as well as mental health problems like anxiety and depression. The trauma of separation, especially for children under five, can cause long-term impacts on health and well-being, including post-traumatic stress disorder, heart disease and diabetes. In his congressional testimony about family separation, Shonkoff explained: “Forcibly separating children from their parents is like setting a house on fire. Prolonging that separation is like preventing the first responders from doing their job.”
Embracing family reunification as a top priority, the Biden-Harris administration has committed to creating a federal task force to spearhead this. This task force should launch immediately and include members with expertise in child development, Central American cultures, and Spanish and indigenous languages.
Second, ensure that children’s development is a priority at the U.S.-Mexico border. Children arriving at our southern border have made harrowing journeys, faced violence and suffered severe physical distress. Currently, border policies disregard the specific needs and vulnerabilities of children and put their safety at risk. For example, the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for the duration of their legal proceedings, placing children and families in squalid and dangerous makeshift camps or shelters where they are easy targets of violent cartels. A recent study by the University of Virginia and Texas A&M in the largest tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, found that parents and children suffered from sustained fear and trauma, and children had deteriorating behavioral, emotional and cognitive functioning. A new paper from Pediatrics argues that the federal government’s handling of migrant children at the border constitutes “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment that rises to the level of torture.”
The first clear policy priority, about which Biden is outspoken, is to end MPP. However, this must be done in coordination with humanitarian actors to ensure support for children during the rollback process, including fundamental health, nutrition, sanitation, education and protection services. Furthermore, as outlined in the Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) blueprint to protect unaccompanied children on the move, it is essential to improve treatment of children arriving at the border. This means enlisting trained and licensed child welfare professionals with expertise in children’s psychological, emotional and physical needs and ensuring hygienic, child-friendly spaces for screening and processing children’s cases.
Third, upon entry to the U.S., improve care and appropriate custody of children. Detention center conditions—cold, unceasingly lit and lacking proper food and health care—are hostile environments for children. A recent study of unaccompanied minors in detention found high levels of violence and physical abuse. Psychologists say that being trapped in such conditions can have a lasting impact on development and mental health. According to another, broader study of children in U.S. detention centers, one third had elevated emotional problems, with younger children suffering more.
There are custody models more suitable for children. Placing children with family or in familylike or small-group settings with case management will benefit their well-being and development. Indeed, a review of 250 alternatives to detention from 60 countries by the International Detention Coalition found such community-based case management programs to be safer, more effective, and cheaper—by 80 percent!—than detention.
And fourth, it’s essential to ensure access to social safety nets for immigrant children and families. Under the Trump administration, immigrant families’ enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program declined, with the trend accentuated when particular policies were announced, such as the “public charge” rule restricting legal immigrants’ access to the federal safety net. Repealing the public charge rule, restricting detention to those who have committed serious crimes, and building on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects undocumented individuals who came to the United States as children from deportation, rather than terminating it would go far in easing the current climate of fear that afflicts immigrant communities and assuring the health and development of America’s immigrant-origin children.
The harm to our nation’s refugees, asylees, legal immigrants and mixed-status families has been extreme in the current administration, but not irreversible. The Biden-Harris administration can take immediate science-based action to improve the lifelong health, economic and educational outcomes of immigrant-origin children, youth and their families nationwide.