The Effects Of Conditions In Detention Centers And Family Separation Are ‘Catastrophic’

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 

“Catastrophic.” It’s the adjective used by Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School, to describe the effect of the conditions at the border on children. “There’s so much research on this,” he said, “that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”

Some will tell you there is no “crisis” at the U.S. southern border. They will “what-about” you into hair-pulling frustration, reminding you that the “cages” overflowing with human beings were actually installed by the Obama administration in 2014. It’s true that those facilities were swiftly erected in response to an unprecedented influx of immigrants in that year, but they were never intended to house people for longer than 72 hours. They weren’t intended to be filled to three times their capacity (in fact they were built to relieve overcrowding). And they certainly weren’t meant to be used as tools to separate families.

Trump maintains that the separation of families was a legacy passed down by Obama. “Obama separated the children, by the way. Just so you understand — President Obama separated the children,” Trump declared during an Oval Office event in April of 2019. He added: “Now I’ll tell you something — once you don’t have it, that’s why you see many more people coming. They’re coming like it’s a picnic. Because ‘Let’s go to Disneyland.’ President Obama separated children. They had child separation. I was the one that changed it.”

This is a lie. Though Obama was notoriously strict on immigration (he still holds the record for most deportations), under his administration, there was no policy that separated children from caregivers. Under both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, parents and children were not separated just because a parent had crossed the border illegally. In fact, under Obama’s policies, “only about 13 percent of undocumented immigrants would be targets for deportation.”

Scott Olson/Getty

This is exactly the opposite of the “no tolerance” policy enacted by the Trump Administration in April of 2018, where, in accordance with the focus being to deport as many people as possible, immigration officials were directed to begin removal proceedings against any individual who had violated any immigration law. So, a person seeking asylum could be separated from their children and proceedings begun against them simply for having crossed the border (to seek asylum) in the first place.

Trump was forced to walk back his policy in June 2018 after a massive public outcry, but the damage had already been done.

Yes, this is a humanitarian crisis.

Conditions at the border can appropriately be labeled a crisis. A crisis of volume, yes, though even with elevated numbers of asylum seekers in 2019, immigration levels still remain far below the highs of 2000. The real crisis, though, is in how we are treating these people, and especially in how we’re treating the children. These children are forced to either wait on the Mexico side of the border in overcrowded and underfunded camps, or are admitted to the U.S. and packed into detention centers where conditions are not any better than the camps on the other side of the border, or possibly worse.

The “no tolerance” policy may have been lifted and many children returned to their families, but the damage has been done. The trauma has been inflicted. And children are still suffering unnecessary trauma at the border, many still being separated from their families anyway.

In a best-case scenario, children are housed in freezing, crowded, filthy detention centers. They endure traumas that can never be undone. In worst-case scenarios, they fall prey to loopholes that separate them from their families and caregivers, again enduring lasting traumas.

The impact of detention on a child’s developing brain cannot be overstated.

Children’s brains are still developing, still forming attachments with parents and caregivers that are critical to their health and emotional growth. They are highly susceptible to trauma, and it is well-understood that children suffer brain damage when attachments are severed. Even short periods of the kind of stress that results from being removed from the care of known loved ones can have long-term consequences.

Short-term reactions include increased heart rate and a flood of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline being released into the body. These stress hormones, if they remain in the system due to ongoing stress, kill of dendrites, the branch-like structures in brain cells responsible for transmitting messages. It can eventually kill off neurons and cause damage at the psychological level as well as to the actual physical structure of the brain.

Science tells us that children separated from their parents at an early age experience visible physical damage to their brains, a decrease in both white and gray matter that allows for full cognitive function. The effects of this kind of damage can be permanent because most types of brain cells do not renew or repair. Without attachment, the amygdala and hippocampus — which deal with attachment and fear — develop improperly. Children develop PTSD later in life because their brains don’t process excitement or fear the way they should. They perceive threats where there are none.

Many of these children have already endured weeks of difficult travel with their families. Being in transit day after day, the caregivers are literally the only stability the children have. Many of the families still being separated include siblings where the older sibling is an adult caregiver still under the age of 21. They are caring for their younger sibling, trying to flee to safety, while they themselves are still barely more than a child. Separating them is abusive and unacceptable.

Trauma doesn’t just come from separation.

According to recent reports, though, even when children are not separated from their parents or caregivers, the condition of the detention centers are awful enough to induce stress reactions anyway. These children are not being humanely cared for.

A Texas pediatrician who visited the detention center in McAllen, Texas reported seeing a young boy “in a cage crying because his father had been taken to court and he had lost his aunt’s phone number.” Another child gave up his foil blanket because, he said, it was giving him nightmares.


USA Today published a series of drawings done by three 10- and 11-year-old children held in detention centers — children who had not been separated from their parents — that would sour just about any reasonable person’s stomach. Stick figures behind bars looked over by guards. Five figures lying on the floor of a barred cell, with a blanket over them.

Dr. Sara Goza, incumbent president of the AAP as of January 1, 2020, said these children might be “at risk for adverse childhood experiences that can cause long-term physical and mental health harms.”

“When you get at that level of stress that stays,” Goza says, “we call it high alert or red alert. The more that happens, the more it changes the architecture of the brain, which causes long-term effects in development, anxiety, depression and suicide ideation.”

The trauma and abuse is intentional.

One of the worst things the Trump administration has done to exacerbate the chaos at the border is something rarely talked about: Metering. This is an intentional limit placed on the number of asylum cases border officials process each day. So, rather than hurry to clear the cages of literal human children, they are purposely delaying the process. Nancy Pelosi has called the policies “child abuse,” and she’s not wrong. In May, an inspection at an El Paso Border Patrol station learned that “at one point 900 migrants had been crammed into the 125-person facility.” This is not a numbers problem. It’s a deliberately created bottleneck.

The latest report from the inspector general’s office, issued July 2, again confirmed abhorrent conditions at the temporary detention centers in Texas. “Children had no access to showers and were being detained long past the maximum of 72 hours.” Since last December, five children have died in Border Patrol custody.


Former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen noted that it had been over a decade since a child had died in CBP custody. No children died during Obama’s administration.

Meanwhile, Trump said last week that migrants had come from “unbelievable poverty” and “those are people that are very happy with what’s going on because, relatively speaking, they’re in much better shape right now.”

It doesn’t need to be this way.

According to the ACLU, ICE spends $2 billion in taxpayer dollars for immigration detention, under the guise that it is necessary to ensure that people show up for court hearings and comply with final case outcomes. But statistics show that isn’t necessary.

Alternatives to detention (ATD), including release on recognizance, community support, or bond, as well as formal monitoring programs, are more effective, more humane, and cost far less than institutional detention. According to Justice for Immigrants, a study showed that 86 percent of families who were released from ICE detention from 2001 to 2016 appeared for all immigration court hearings, a number that rose to 96 percent if the family applied for asylum.

Bottom line: Immigrant detention — especially detention of families and children — is unnecessary, costly, and inhumane. And it needs to end NOW.

Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Concentration Camps, will take place around the country on July 12, 2019 to protest the inhumane conditions faced by migrants. Click here to find an event near you.

This article was originally published on