ICE raid in Mississippi deals another traumatizing blow to children on Trump's watch

For children at the border, the trauma may prove developmentally destructive in ways that will reverberate long after the president has left office.
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By Cortnie McGinnis, Helen Barahal and Omar Etman

For some Mississippi children, the first day of school ended with no parents to pick them up. After Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested 680 undocumented people — perhaps the largest work site raid ever in a single state — images and videos of children crying and pleading for the return of their parents went viral on social media. The videos are hard to watch, the kids’ anguish overwhelming.

But what happened in Mississippi this week is only the latest in a long list of atrocities committed by the government against immigrant children and their families.

At the time of writing, thousands of children still sit warehoused in U.S. detention camps or separated from their families. Of the children currently or formerly held in detention, at least 3,600 have been forcibly separated from their families — a tally that does not include the children in Mississippi and across the country who have been recently separated from their families during raids.

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But what happened in Mississippi this week is only the latest in a long list of atrocities committed by the government against immigrant children and their families.

For children at the border, the dual trauma of institutionalization and separation, on top of whatever trauma they may have endured during the often-harrowing journey to the United States, may prove developmentally destructive in ways that will reverberate long after the current administration is gone. As Democratic candidates debate immigration this 2020 primary, we should demand that their proposals for reform include investment in the long-term well-being of traumatized children.

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In the past 20 years, early childhood researchers have learned a lot about the effects of trauma on children. We know that children, especially young children, need safe, predictable and nurturing environments to grow. Young children experience their world as an environment of relationships, and these relationships affect virtually all aspects of their development. When those relationships are disrupted, social and emotional growth suffers during what should be a period of formative development. (On average, before the court decision last June ordering reunification, children were separated from their families for 154 days — almost five months.)

Research also tells us that not everyone experiences traumatic events in the same way. Protective factors, or forces that insulate children from the blows of trauma and facilitate their ability to regulate their emotions, often determine a child’s capacity to handle trauma and build resilience. For many children at the border, who in migrating to the U.S. may have left behind a familiar environment, friends or school, the family from whom immigrant officials separated them may have provided one of their last remaining protective factors.

As educators, we also know that children without safe, nurturing environments often have high levels of stress. Exposure to a series of chronic traumatic events — like, say, finding out on the first day of school that one or both of your parents has been arrested and could be deported — activates stress response systems. Even when there is no apparent threat, the prolonged absence of a caring adult can activate stress response systems. Repeated activation weakens a child’s developing brain, with lifelong consequences for behavior, learning and overall health.

In recent months, the stories of crisis have come alongside images (or, where access to facilities was denied, descriptions) of the conditions faced by migrant families. We see the dead child, face down in water, with her arm tangled underneath her father’s shirt. We hear the toddler, wailing as her mother is searched by officers. And now, in Mississippi, we see the young girl pleading to see her father again, who she says through her tears, "didn't do nothing." The spectacle of separation and institutionalization crystallizes our rage. The clear government neglect captured in the wake of raids and in reports of detained children without adequate hygiene presents a powerful rallying call for concerned Americans. To make our anger mean something for suffering children, though, we must also demand cultural and political changes that address the lingering effects of trauma and fact of systemic injustice.

Systemic injustice and corresponding trauma can follow a child through their development. Educators know that, in schools, tending to children’s individual trauma can be insufficient. Paul C. Gorski, founder of the Equity Literacy Institute and EdChange, says that treating individual traumas without discussing systemic injustice “means schools don’t just risk leaving some traumas unrecognized; it means they risk re-traumatizing students.” In Mississippi, at the border, and in communities across the country, when the active violence seems over, the psychological damage still remains, quiet and devastating. And the current climate of fear that makes it worse.

As children forced into separation and institutionalization grow up, and hopefully move toward decent lives — alongside family, in safe living conditions, at school — the impacts of the trauma inflicted upon them will become clearer. The work of building resilience in traumatized children, of helping form their protective factors, is long and slow. It takes the commitment and expertise of educators and social workers. It takes the work of entire communities, fighting the injustices that sustain a racist national culture. It takes politicians, current and future, accounting for the trauma of children in their plans for reform. It takes all of us, listening for the pain after the outrage has passed.