Extinguishing the Beacon of America

The Trump administration’s policy of separating families is designed to erase hope—with devastating consequences for thousands of children.

Patrick Fallon / Reuters

In early May, I traveled to McAllen, Texas, to speak with U.S. Border Patrol about the current immigration crisis. It was a humid, overcast morning and Chris Cabrera, the agency’s spokesperson, stood on the banks of the Rio Grande as he explained the challenges posed by the current wave of migrants entering the country illegally, most of whom are refugees fleeing deadly violence and institutional failure in Central America. “You have a lot of women and children that are coming here. I’ve seen groups of 20, 25 people that are all women, or all girls, age 15 and below.”

Cabrera was anguished about the surge in illegal entries. “We have this beacon that says you can come in, and we will take you, right?” he said. “So what does that do? That activates people.”

Throughout our conversation, Cabrera returned to what he called “the beacon”—in this case, the promise of freedom that was luring children and their families across the border. “When you find an 11-year-old in the brush, dead, alone, and you could see that he’s got his little Pokemon belt on, it breaks your heart,” he said. “At what point do we turn off this beacon?”

But that beacon is the idea of America—the promise of a better life, of freedom from persecution. How might anyone possibly extinguish the idea of America?

The Trump administration seems to have come up with its answer in the current “zero tolerance” policy for migrant families, one that appears to be based in deterrence. Practically, this means that, for the families making the dangerous journey to the U.S. border, what awaits them is not respite, but trauma: the separation of families and the potential deportation of parents without their children. It is a clarion call to those considering migration north—here, in America, we will take your children. And you may not see them again for a very long time. This, apparently, is how you turn off the idea of America: take the dreams of a better life in this country, and turn them into nightmares.

As a means of deterrence, the policy has failed: Illegal crossings in March saw a fourfold increase since the same time last year. For the families—especially the children—who have already been torn apart in the process, and for whom deterrence is a ship long since sailed, the effects of this policy are profound and deeply disturbing. Alan Shapiro, the senior medical director for community pediatric programs at Montefiore Health System, put it bluntly: “This is government-sanctioned torture of children.”

To understand the breadth of this suffering, I spoke with several experts who work with migrant children from Central American countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Each made a point of highlighting the trauma visited upon these children even before they reach the border of the United States.

“They have come from a place where they have been exposed to incredible turmoil and sometimes very severe trauma—whether the killing of one parent or family member, domestic violence, plus abject poverty,” said Shapiro. “There is a lack of food, poor living conditions, dangerous neighborhoods—all of that is the baseline of the children we are seeing. It’s critical to understand that these are not people looking for a better life, they are looking to flee dangerous environments with no protection.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared this month that domestic abuse and gang violence do not constitute grounds for asylum, thereby making it nearly impossible for many of these Central American migrants to claim legal grounds for staying in the United States. “The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune,” Sessions wrote in his ruling. Quoting an earlier decision, Sessions downplayed the severity of the situation in places like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. “Evidence consistent with acts of private violence or that merely shows that an individual has been the victim of criminal activity does not constitute evidence of persecution on a statutorily protected ground.”

Characterizing asylum seekers as “merely” the victims of criminal activity is telling, a rhetorical waving-off of troubles by the nation’s highest law-enforcement officer. Donna Abbott, the branch director of refugee services for Bethany Christian Services (which places unaccompanied migrant children in foster care), sees it differently. “The terminology is different, but just because it’s called a gang doesn’t mean it’s not a terrorist group,” she told me. “They recruit children, they use threats of violence, and they terrify communities and the most vulnerable populations.”

Sessions’s downgrade of this horror to a “private violence” reflects the administration’s hands-off attitude toward the collapse under way in the Central American triangle—but it is also evidence of the government’s fundamental miscalculation. Until President Trump and his associates begin to grapple with the severity of the situation in these countries, their efforts to stanch the flow of refugees through deterrence will be futile: The terrors at home (as yet) still outweigh the trauma that awaits.

But that is not to understate the severity of the damage the United States government has chosen to inflict on migrant children. Pediatric experts I spoke with described the voyage to America as yet another chapter in a profoundly disruptive experience. The children arrive at the border stressed and seeking stability. Instead, they find trauma piled on top of suffering, as a matter of policy.

“Stability is very important for a child’s life,” Shapiro said. “Going to bed at the same time, having meals at the same time, seeing the same people—it helps children’s own physiology stabilize. But if it’s constant change, their physiology is responding by releasing the stress hormone. Then they take the journey—they ride on the top of trains, in the back of trucks, they are exposed to extremes in weather and temperature, there is a lack of food. [This is] ongoing trauma—so in a child already sensitized, it’s ratcheting up the level of stress.”

This continued erosion of emotional health puts migrant children in a weakened state well before the Department of Homeland Security chooses to take the child away from his or her parents. “At the border, the family for the first time senses protection,” said Shapiro. “To have them ripped apart is adding a level of stress that most of us are finding hard to reconcile.”

“Any child that has gone through a traumatic event, the first thing they want is to be assured that their world is safe, that the adults caring for them have their best interests at heart. That’s the parents, right?,” Abbott said. “But you separate them from that—even though we are doing the best we can—and the child has to learn all over again: Is this person safe?”

“The ultimate stressor—the ultimate trauma—is being removed from your loving caregiver. On top of that, the child is losing the person who is supposed to buffer that stress,” Shapiro said. “Who are they to turn to, to give them that comfort?”

It is hard to overstate the challenge this presents, especially when one factors in the age of the children in question. One of the more sinister effects of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance position is that the average age of the children who are being rendered “unaccompanied” (by virtue of the separation policy) has plummeted. According to Abbott, “The age range has been usually a little older. But now with the separations, we’re seeing day-care, toddler age. Children as young as eight months old.”

Wendy Young, the CEO of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)—which assists migrant children with legal representation—told me, “The family-separation policy has particularly targeted the little ones. The youngest we’ve seen is an 11-month-old.”

The developmental implications for children at such tender ages are dire. “This is when the most rapid brain growth is happening,” Julie Linton, a co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Immigrant Health Special Interest Group, told me. “The traumatizing is really impeding children and their ability to contribute to the world.”

“The most alarming cases have been with really young children,” she said. “We’ve seen changes in bodily functions, sleeping, eating, and toileting.”

Children may start to wet themselves or lose bowel control, or engage in “self-injurious behavior,” Shapiro said.

“They are detached. Numb. Aggressive. Anxious,” Linton said. “They have exaggerated responses, like door slamming. There are changes in learning, there are temper tantrums and limited working memory.”

Separated children are often in shock. But there are also internal changes, ones that are less visible but no less distressing. “Physiologically, we are damaging the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems,” Shapiro said. “All these things with prolonged stress without a buffer lead to long-term chronic diseases: cancer, depression, obesity, worsening asthma.”

And then there is the impact on mental development. “We are putting children in a constant fight-or-flight mode,” Shapiro said. “It shuts down their memory centers and is potentially affecting their long-term learning and development. I almost have never seen this.”

While heroic efforts are under way—by advocates, aid workers, and nonprofit groups—to mitigate the effects of this state-directed trauma, the sheer magnitude of the demand is compromising the efficacy of that work. After being taken from their parents, many children end up in large detention centers—in some cases, little more than warehouses—which are increasingly overcrowded, due to the surge in demand. According to the director of one nonprofit group that assists migrant children (who asked to remain anonymous), these facilities—housing as many as 1,500 children of tender ages—are far too large and ill-equipped to deal with children who are grappling with severely traumatic experiences. In America’s domestic child-services management, the director explained, “we stopped doing that decades ago—putting kids in large facilities. And now we’re going in the opposite direction.”

With numbers like these, the ratio of adult caregivers and clinicians to children has grown alarmingly low, complicating efforts to reach and rehabilitate the most vulnerable. (It has also compromised the ability to assist children in finding their parents before they are deported—an increasingly time-sensitive proposition, given the Trump administration’s policy of expedited removal.)

The complications facing even the most seasoned advocates would be farcical, if they weren’t so grim. “We now have the huge challenge of representing babies,” Young said of her organization’s legal advocacy. “How do you represent babies? How do you represent toddlers? It’s extremely challenging.”

I asked her whether the children even realized what was happening, as they were forced to navigate the thicket of government groups—from DHS to HHS to the state courts—in a bid to find home. “Generally not,” Young said. “They are very, very confused. It’s not unusual when the attorney briefs a child—and rebriefs the child—that you get questions like ‘When we get to court, do you walk in first, or do I walk in first?’ No matter where they are from, children have certain steps in their development and a certain capacity to understand … We just have to support them.” She added, “We’ve reached a new low point.”

I asked the same of Abbott: How are foster parents grappling with such young children who have been through so much? “We’re hearing from foster parents about how difficult it is to hear a child cry half the night for Mama or Papa—or who doesn’t understand where their parent is.”

Her organization, which has contracts with the federal government, has been reluctant to wade into the politics of immigration, but Abbot was clear in her assessment of separating migrant children from their parents. “This is still a developing process,” she said, “but what we do know is that it’s just plain wrong to separate children for seeking safety. From the parents’ perspective, from Bethany’s perspective, this makes no sense.”

The ACLU is suing to end the practice of family separations, and a ruling is expected soon on a preliminary injunction. Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney handling the suit, told me that while the government is not arguing that the basis of the policy lies in deterrence (the administration instead contends that children must be separated from their parents as a matter of criminal prosecution), the extended separation of children from their families is “purposeful.”

“This is not neglect or incompetence,” he said. “This is a practice and a policy.”

It is hard to imagine otherwise. After speaking with these aid workers and doctors and lawyers, I thought back to that day on the banks of the Rio Grande, and I remembered how impossible Cabrera’s proposition seemed, this notion that you could somehow extinguish the idea of America—its hope, its freedom, its fairness. The treatment and repeated traumatization of migrant children is a test of that hypothesis: Perhaps those ideals are not as immutable as we might have imagined.