Don’t be misled: Thousands of immigrant children are still separated from their parents — and they urgently need our help


June 23, 2018

For a child — especially a very young child — being torn away from the parent you love is an unfathomable nightmare. And for thousands of children, the nightmare hasn’t ended. 

We will never be able to compensate these families for what they have suffered. But we can stand up and do the needful.

We must move heaven and earth to reunite these families as soon as possible. And make sure this never happens again.

As you’ve probably heard, some families have crossed the U.S. border illegally in order to request asylum. And on April 6th, the Trump Administration announced a new, “zero tolerance” policy: Every adult is immediately prosecuted, with the consequence that children are separated from their parents.

On June 20th, in response to public outrage, President Trump signaled his intention to stop separating families in the future.

But don’t be misled. Regardless of what new policies the U.S. government may adopt, nothing has changed for thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents before June 20, 2018.

These children — some of them infants and toddlers — are still in custody, isolated from the most important people in their lives. They don’t know where their parents are. They don’t know when they will see their parents again. 

And because the government has done such a poor job preparing for this inhumane, destructive policy, it isn’t even clear that every family will be reunited.

Some parents are being deported — forced to return to their home countries — while the U.S. government continues to hold their young children.

How is this possible?

Lost in the system

Although both children and adults are issued with identification numbers, parents aren’t given the information they will need to find their children later. It appears the government never set up a general system for linking together family records. Nor did the government establish any protocols for eventually reuniting children with their parents.

So once the government split up families, it has been difficult for even the government to keep track. When parents are released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they learn that their children are still being held by another agency, the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services.

But where, exactly?

Some children have been moved multiple times, and parents can’t find them. Immigration agents don’t seem to know either, and have refused to answer questions, even in a court of law. 

The court records are there for all to see, as Erik Hanshew, an assistant public defender in El Paso, notes in a column for the Washington Post. When a parent gets his or her hearing, it typically unfolds in the same way. 

“I ask about the child; the government objects; the judge forces the agent to answer.” 

And the answer is empty. 

“Do you know the location of the child?”

The reply: “No or unknown.”

When ICE finishes with parents, the parents may face a terrifying prospect: Being forced to leave their children behind.

In one case profiled by the New York Times, a mother was forcibly deported — put on a plane back to Guatemala — while the US government continued to detain her 8-year-old son.

We must not allow this to continue. These children need our advocacy and help. We need to keep putting pressure on politicians to get these families reunited fast. 

Whatever your views on immigration — and reasonable people may take a variety of positions on the subject — you can’t find it morally acceptable to inflict such a cruel punishment on innocent children.

And there is no doubt that this is cruel. For a child — especially a very young child — being torn away from the parent you love is an unfathomable nightmare.

Observers, including  opens in a new windowDr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Pediatrics Association, have reported heart-wrenching scenes of toddlers, inconsolable and disturbed. 

Desperate for their parents, young children in this situation need more than the standard care offered by a daycare center. Yet there are reports of children receiving far less.

The staff at one detention center told Dr. Kraft that it was against the rules to try to soothe children by touching or holding them.

You don’t need to read about scientific studies to know this is terrible and immoral. We don’t need science to tell us that certain things are deeply and seriously wrong. 

But yes, research indicates that this sort of toxic, separation stress causes great fear and pain. And it can cause lasting damage.

Nobody has conducted experiments precisely like these forced family separations, because doing so would be monstrous. An experiment replicating these conditions for a single day would never pass a university’s ethics board.

But we have evidence from studies of children who’ve been subjected to separations due to wartime evacuations or parental imprisonment (e.g., Andersson 2011; Pesonen and Räikkönen 2012; Murray et al 2012). 

We have research on the stress response systems of young children, and a large experimental literature on the long-term effects of forced, maternal separation on non-human animals (Cirulli et al 2009; Murphy et al 2017).

Each of these lines of evidence leads to the same conclusion. These kids are at risk for lasting problems, and every day their separation continues,  the risks increase.

Dr. Megan Gunnar — one of the world’s leading experts on child stress physiology — sums the research up in opens in a new windowa statement released by the University of Minnesota.

“We know from over a half century of research surrounding the impact of forced and traumatic separations on infants in our own and other species that this impairs brain development and induces problems in health that can last a lifetime” (University of Minnesota 2018).

We can’t be sure which children will suffer the most. But the younger the children are, the more extreme the risk. As Gunnar told Buzzfeed, “those under 5 should get us all running around with our hair on fire to get this practice stopped.”

And it’s important to remember that many of these families are fleeing “trauma-inducing conditions” in their countries of origin. Separating families imposes “a second massive trauma on already vulnerable children,” says Gunnar. “It is unconscionable.”

And tragic. Because when children are exposed to major stress and trauma, they need their parents. As Gunnar notes, parents are “most powerful means that nature has devised” to protect children from the toxic effects of stress (University of Minnesota 2018).

We can’t undo the premeditated cruelty that has been inflicted on these families. But we can stop the ongoing nightmare by returning children to their parents. We must do everything possible to get these families back together.

Want to help?

Speak out about what’s going on. Put the pressure on elected officials.

Don’t allow your neighbors to feel complacent, or make false, morally bankrupt excuses for what is going on. 

And consider donating to funds that will provide legal help to parents trying to recover their children. One such fund has been started by a couple of opens in a new windowFacebook. 


Andersson P. 2011. Post-traumatic stress symptoms linked to hidden Holocaust trauma among adult Finnish evacuees separated from their parents as children in World War II, 1939-1945: a case-control study. Int Psychogeriatr.  23(4):654-61.

Cirulli F, Francia N, Berry A, Aloe L, Alleva E, Suomi SJ. 2009. Early life stress as a risk factor for mental health: role of neurotrophins from rodents to non-human primates. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 33(4):573-85.

Henshew 2018. Families will no longer be separated at the border. But where are my clients’ kids? Washington Post. 2018 June 20. Available from: Accessed 6/22/2018.

Murphy MO, Cohn DM, Loria AS. 2017. Developmental origins of cardiovascular disease: Impact of early life stress in humans and rodents. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 74(Pt B):453-465.

Murray J, Farrington DP, Sekol I. 2012. Children’s antisocial behavior, mental health, drug use, and educational performance after parental incarceration: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 138(2):175-210.

Pesonen AK and Räikkönen K. 2012. The lifespan consequences of early life stress. Physiol Behav. 106(5):722-7.

University of Minnesota. 2018. Expert Alert: Child separation at the border. June 5, 2018. Accessed at:

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