As soon as Border Patrol picked them up after they crossed into the U.S. from Guatemala, Jamelin González and her two brothers were separated from their mother –– the siblings sent to foster care in New York and their parent detained in Arizona. During their five weeks apart, Jamelin, 9, told her mother about the pains in her chest and how she kept her tears bottled up out of fear.
The González family’s saga is one of thousands of such cases under the “zero-tolerance policy” on illegal immigration. You don’t need to be a trained clinician to grasp the potential mental health harm to any child separated from their parents. But for these immigrant children, the trauma is compounded by the perilous journey and uprooting they’ve already endured and the uneasy future they face.
“The decision to separate children from their parents as soon as the parent crosses the border into the United States is both harmful and inexcusable,” said the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). “More concretely, the policy directly imperils the health and safety of immigrants.” NASW’s opinion echoes that of many other organizations that have denounced the separation of families.
The NASW’s point demonstrates the physical, emotional and mental toll on children whose families are splintered at the border. For example, constant vigilance and worry can trigger toxic stress, which Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child says can harm growing brains and cause problems into adulthood.
The American Psychological Association warned the separation could lead to PTSD, depression, aggression and academic problems.
This fear of separation from family members can also affect children of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. According to “Facing the Fear of Deportation” by the University of Southern California online Master of Social Work program, those immigrants live in ever-present fear of deportation and their children who may be natural born citizens also face the possibility of being separated from their parents.
Decades of studies have found a clear link between legal status and mental health. Along with higher rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse, children whose mothers lack the authorization to live in the U.S. develop a fear of being separated, a condition called adjustment disorder. The stress disrupts everything from their sleep, to school work, to relationships.
What can social workers do to help? The NASW and the MSW@USC offer concrete suggestions:
- Volunteer as translators for detained immigrants. If you’re a licensed social worker, you can also assess the person’s mental health for their legal file.
- Work or volunteer with community-trusted organizations that have a proven history of advocating for immigrant families. Undocumented individuals are more likely to trust organizations that have effectively supported their community members in the past.
- Support advocacy groups that work to unite families and to prevent separations. Families Belong Together, the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants are some examples.
- Educate yourself on legal and policy issues about immigration status and how they affect child welfare and other matters.
- Lobby your members of Congress, contact local elected officials and push for laws to protect basic human rights.
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