In his announcement of a ” ‘zero tolerance’ policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border.”Attorney General Jeff Session’s explained, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you.” In the weeks that followed, over two thousand children were separated from their parents. In response, several academic organizations issued statements and reports condemning the practice. You will find linked to them below:
On behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA), we are writing to express our deep concern and strong opposition to the Administration’s new policy of separating immigrant parents and children who are detained while crossing the border. We previously wrote to then Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly on April 5, 2017, about this matter. Based on empirical evidence of the psychological harm that children and parents experience when separated, we implore you to reconsider this policy and commit to the more humane practice of housing families together pending immigration proceedings to protect them from further trauma.
[W]e endorse the statement authored by the Presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Engineering regarding the harmful consequences of separating families at the U.S. border. We concur with the National Academies’ assembling of compelling science in their statement that documents the immediate and long-term consequences to children and youth of traumatic separation from parents, guardians, or other significant familial members. The evidence suggests that these separations may create irreparable psycho-social damage to the affected children and youth. We also draw attention to research by the Society for Research in Child Development, which similarly documents the harm caused by family separation.
We urge the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to immediately stop separating migrant children from their families, based on the body of scientific evidence that underscores the potential for lifelong, harmful consequences for these children and based on human rights considerations.
Reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine contain an extensive body of evidence on the factors that affect the welfare of children – evidence that points to the danger of current immigration enforcement actions that separate children from their parents. Research indicates that these family separations jeopardize the short- and long-term health and well-being of the children involved. In addition, the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies, which has a long history of addressing issues at the intersection of human rights, science, and health, stresses that the practice of separating parents from their children at the border is inconsistent with U.S. obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Parents’ impact on their children’s well-being may never be greater than during the earliest years of life, when a child’s brain is developing rapidly and when nearly all of her or his experiences are shaped by parents and the family environment (NASEM, 2016, p. 1). Young children who are separated from their primary caregivers may potentially suffer mental health disorders and other adverse outcomes over the course of their lives (NASEM, 2016, p. 21-22). Child development involves complex interactions among genetic, biological, psychological, and social processes (NRC and IOM, 2009, p. 74), and a disruption in any of these – such as family disruption – hinders healthy development and increases the risk for future disorders (NRC and IOM, 2009, p.102-104). Young children are capable of deep and lasting sadness, grief, and disorganization in response to trauma and loss (NRC and IOM, 2000, p. 387). Indeed, most mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders have their roots in childhood and adolescence (NRC and IOM, 2009, p. 1), and childhood trauma has emerged as a strong risk factor for later suicidal behavior (IOM, 2002, p. 3).
Decades of research have demonstrated that the parent-child relationship and the family environment are at the foundation of children’s well-being and healthy development. We call upon the Department of Homeland Security to stop family separations immediately based on this evidence.
After the United States Department of Justice announced the “Zero Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry,” Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE — an arm of the Department of Homeland Security) separated approximately 2,000 children from their parents in April and May 2018 as they approached the U.S. border. Children and parents were placed in separate facilities as they were being processed and were not told when or how they would be reunited. This policy and its consequences have raised significant concerns among researchers, child welfare advocates, policy makers, and the public, given the overwhelming scientific evidence that separation between children and parents, except in cases where there is evidence of maltreatment, is harmful to the development of children, families, and communities. Family separations occurring in the presence of other stressors, such as detention or natural disaster, only adds to their negative effects.