Detention in U.S. immigration custody can provide additional traumatic experiences to compound those already suffered by children prior to migration and during the journey to the United States. The current government-issued images of border processing centers showing large numbers of children separated from their families and huddled under space blankets in metal cages lit day and night are disturbing, and reminiscent of the cold, overcrowded, unsanitary conditions described by families in our study. One Honduran mother we spoke to provided further details about the conditions in which her 10- and 14-year-old daughters were held:
The two days in immigration, they were sleeping on the floor there. They gave them foil blankets to cover themselves. The food was terrible, they were sick to their stomach. They would only give them sandwiches with, with I don’t know what, raw things and they are not used to that. The bathrooms were open, without a door. They felt really embarrassed, because everyone could see them. And well, the time they were there they suffered a lot. At the place they were, they didn’t let them sleep because they would call them for whatever information at 10, 12 at night.
Although the children we spoke to in our study had been transferred from government custody to family members living in the community while their immigration cases were being adjudicated, many still bore the emotional scars of their pre-migration and migration experiences, were struggling with separation from loved ones and difficulties adjusting to life in the United States, and were feeling fearful and uncertain about their futures. Some described experiencing panic symptoms, flashbacks to gang violence in their home countries, nightmares about their journeys and detention, somatic symptoms such as headaches and blurred vision, and thoughts about suicide.
Despite the many challenges faced by migrant youth from Central America, under the right conditions they show a remarkable capacity for resilience. What helps them? Time and again in the literature, the presence of parents is identified as a key factor in helping these children overcome adversity, resume normal childhood experiences, and build towards constructive, optimistic futures. They do so not only by providing love, reassurance, and emotional support through difficult times, but also by providing a nurturing environment and protecting them in the other ways parents naturally protect their children: by enrolling them in schools and community activities and helping them access other needed services such as health care. One 17-year-old girl we spoke to who had been victimized by gangs and endured years of neglect and abuse from an aunt in El Salvador before being reunited with her parents in the United States explained the importance of being with them in plainer terms:
Over here, I feel calm. I feel alright, like nothing will happen because I have my parents and they look after me. A mother knows how to take care of her kids. Well, I feel safe with her. I feel well here.
This vital role of family in fostering children’s health and wellbeing has been enshrined in international law. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child asserts the rights of all children to be cared for by their parents and for children’s best interests to be a key consideration in all administrative, legislative, judicial, and welfare decisions. The United States used to recognize these standards, if not officially. Despite impasse in many other areas of immigration law and policy, over the last 20 years Congress has passed a number of laws designed to remove children from government custody and return them as quickly as possible to child-friendly environments more conducive to their development while their cases are being processed, including, wherever possible, reunification with family members.