As a recent college graduate returning to my home state after four years, I feel grateful to be able to celebrate Father’s Day with my family this summer. We devote time every year to celebrate our parents and all that they do for us because, as Americans, we value family. But this Father’s Day, I cannot help but think about the current immigration policies that are tearing young children away from their moms and dads and ignoring the importance of family.
Our family members ground us. They foster our development, they teach us resiliency, they offer immense support, and they shape us as individuals. All children deserve the support they need in order to reach their full potential, and families play a crucial role in this process. Parents and caregivers aim to protect their children in every way possible, and research shows again and again that growing up in stable, nourishing families strengthens children’s physical, mental, social, and emotional development. But unfortunately, the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, announced last month, ignores all the research on child development. This policy disregards the value we place on family, it harms children’s well-being, and according to the United Nations, it “amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child.”
Families have been immigrating to the United States for centuries to seek a better life. Many of today’s immigrants are escaping violence and extreme poverty as well, in order to give their children a better future. And sadly, many of their children have already faced overwhelming adversity in their country of origin and during their journey to the U. S. When children experience repeated trauma, they develop chronic stress, which physically alters the brain and can lead to life-long problems, including shorter lifespans. President Trump’s new immigration policy is so egregious because it adds to and even intensifies the chronic stress these vulnerable populations already suffer. Even when families are seeking asylum, their children are being taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immediately, instead of being allowed to remain together until legal proceedings take place. These children are then placed in holding centers – sometimes for days on end – that are dark, dirty, overpopulated, and may lack basic resources such as nutritious food, blankets, toiletries, and medical care. On top of all of this trauma, some of these children—including those as young as 18 months old and those who do not speak English—may not even be able to communicate their needs, their fears, or even their own name or their family members’ names. After spending a few days in holding centers, children are placed in foster care by the Department of Health and Human Services, and may lose contact with their families indefinitely.
Last month, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly suggested that this zero-tolerance policy was a fear tactic to discourage families from entering the country. Dismissing the emotional and psychological impacts of family separation, Kelly said children will “be taken care of—put into foster care or whatever.” But no matter where a child is born, they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, not “whatever.” Policies that tear apart families without cause and that traumatize children must not be tolerated.
Immigrant families who have resided here for years—and even their U.S. citizen children—are negatively impacted as well. With deportations on the rise and the possibility that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program will be terminated, the fear of families being separated and family members being sent back to a country they hardly know or where they are in danger is justified. These people are suffering from chronic stress, hypervigilance, and other mental health issues just like the immigrant children at the border. School officials are noticing higher rates of behavioral issues, depression, and anxiety among immigrant students, according to a study done by the UCLA Civil Rights Project. Children and families are suffering in terms of physical health too. Another study illustrates that as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials become more aggressive, making arrests near public service areas such as schools and hospitals, families feel less safe, leave their homes less frequently, and are opting out of crucial social services that they are eligible to receive. Across the country, enrollment in health care and food-security programs is decreasing amongst immigrant families, and attendance is decreasing in early childhood centers.
All children—including the 12,455 immigrant children and 44,653 children living with at least one undocumented family member here in New Mexico—are seeds. We can nurture them and support their growth by caring for them and giving them the resources they need to thrive, or we can mistreat them and impede their future development. The culture of fear that the zero-tolerance policy ignites is shameful. It fails to nurture future generations in any way whatsoever and causes trauma and stress that will affect these children for the rest of their lives. It is morally wrong and puts millions of children in the country at a disadvantage. When children are not healthy and do not feel safe, their physical and mental development is negatively affected. Each and every child’s outcome affects the future of our communities, state, and country, so it is our responsibility to ensure that all children have full access to services, and feel safe and supported by their families and in their communities so they can learn and thrive without living in constant fear and anxiety. So as we celebrate this Father’s Day with our families let’s remember that other New Mexicans are not so fortunate and that we must raise our voices against ill-considered and inhumane policies that divide our families.
Sarah Hyde is a research and policy analyst at NM Voices for Children.