Analyzing the Effects of CBP’s Family Separation Policy

Since our last post about the Department of Homeland Security’s family separation policy, DHS has revealed that almost 2,000 children were separated from their families at the southern border of the United States during the six-week period between April 19 and May 31, 2018. Since then, the world has seen photos of some of the locations where these children have been housed or may be housed in the future, including:

  • the processing detention center in McAllen, Texas, in which children are kept in cage-like fenced enclosures, sleeping on cots on the floor;

  • a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, which has been dubbed “Casa Padre” and converted into a facility to house 1,500 boys between the ages of 10 and 17. The children are allowed outside for a maximum of two hours a day, and state regulators have cited the facility 13 times for deficiencies since its establishment in March 2017;

  • a tent city in Tornillo, Texas, which was built to hold 450 children.

As things currently stand, the Department of Health and Human Services stated on May 29 that it had 10,773 migrant children in custody, up from 8,886 on April 29, an increase of almost 25% in the course of a single month. If DHS continues to separate children from their parents at the present rate, we can expect to see even more of these shelters springing into existence. After all, taking 2,000 children away from their families over a period of six weeks means that more than 330 children per week are being detained; if the present rate continues for a year, the family separation policy will result in over 17,300 children being separated from their families. This is in addition to any unaccompanied minors who are apprehended and detained by DHS while attempting to enter the United States; while this number varies widely from year to year, it totaled almost 60,000 in 2016. This allows us to estimate that between the number of unaccompanied minors attempting to enter the U.S. and the number of children victimized by DHS’s family separation policy, the federal government will need sufficient space to detain over 77,000 children over the course of the next year. Common sense dictates that if the number of children in detention continues to skyrocket over such a short period of time, conditions in the detentions facilities will only worsen.

While seeing the physical conditions under which children are kept in these facilities is dismaying, the potential threat that detention poses to these children’s mental well-being is even worse. According to the American Psychological Association, “migration-related family separation, particularly between mother and child, has negative effects on both children and parents that persist even after reunification,” and “many immigrants are detained in facilities with limited access to legal representation or mental health services.” Furthermore, “immigrant detention itself is related to persistent negative mental health outcomes, including depression, PTSD and anxiety.” While DHS claims that the average length of child detention is 56 days, they have not addressed or even acknowledge the reality that even short periods of trauma can result in mental health problems that persist for much longer than 56 days.

While it may be too early to evaluate the full extent of DHS’s family separation policy on detainees’ mental health, it has already led to at least one irreversible tragedy: the death of Marco Antonio Muñoz, a 39-year-old Honduran man who was separated from his wife and 3-year-old son after they attempted to apply for asylum in McAllen, Texas on May 12, 2018. The distraught Mr. Muñoz was detained in a padded isolation cell in Starr County Jail and was found dead in his cell the following morning, the victim of an apparent suicide.

In the two months since the new family separation policy was enacted, we have seen how unprepared the Department of Health and Human Services is to care for the sheer number of children who have been separated from their parents, and we have begun to see the human cost which that separation exacts upon children and parents alike. The overwhelming nature of an ongoing tragedy like this can make it difficult to know how to respond; for that reason, we are making the following suggestions:

  • Check your sources. We appreciate you taking the time to read this blog and learn about the details of this alarming situation. Please share this and other articles with your friends and family so they can stay informed. Make sure to double-check your sources so that you know the information you are sharing is up-to-date and accurate!

  • Call your representative. Give your congressperson and/or senator a call and let them know how you feel about families being separated from one another at our nation’s border. Want to be more proactive? Set up an in-person meeting with their staff and ask what your representative is doing to address this problem.

  • Donate. Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates is one of many organizations which is dedicated to keeping immigrant families together. We work tirelessly to provide low-cost legal services to immigrants in our Ottawa County community, and we depend on support from fierce advocates like yourself to keep our operation growing. Click here to join the cause and don’t hesitate to contact community@lia-michigan.org if you have any questions!

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