George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
During a shameful era of our nation’s history, then-President Franklin Roosevelt isolated thousands of people of Japanese ancestry and forced them into concentration camps under the guise of national security. Although separation of families was not part of the policy, over a thousand people were incarcerated and unable to communicate with their family members. Of those forced into detainment, at least 17,000 were children under the age of ten. Conditions of the concentration camps included overcrowding and excessive police force and brutality.
Now, a little over 70 years since the closing of the last American concentration camp, history has been doomed to repeat itself. In April, the Trump administration passed a “zero-tolerance” policy of forced separation of migrant families – which resulted in the separation of more than 2,000 migrant children from their parents. Then, last week, Trump issued an executive order ending the forced separation and instead replacing it with indefinite family detention, meaning that “children would be held in facilities that are essentially jails with their parents for months, or even years, until they ultimately received legal status — or, more likely, until they were finally deported.”
It has been proven that exposure to such toxic stress in children’s leaves – whether it’s getting forcibly removed from their parents or suffering detainment during their childhoods – has serious, long-term consequences for children’s development. Such toxic stress can lead to stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flooding children’s systems – hormones that over time can start killing off neurons and thus resulting in consequences that may cause not only learning and behavioral problems, but physical and mental health problems as well.
Jack Shonkoff, the director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, has stated that with each day that children are separated from their parents, their stress responses are persistently triggered – thus “having a wear and tear effect on their developing brains and all of their biological systems.” Not only does this severely impact the 2,000+ children who have already been forcibly separated from their parents, without a concrete plan for their reunification, but also the children who will now be indefinitely detained. Even for families that do not get separated, their detainment can “compromise a parent’s role as ‘parent,’” as well as “undermine the critical parent-child relationship.”
A 2015 report on the harmful impacts of family detention on children stated that children in detention facilities are ten times more likely than adults to experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was also reported by medical experts that detention conditions could have life-long consequences for a child’s academic, economic, and social development. Furthermore, a therapist who worked with many previously-interned Japanese-American clients, stated that such trauma “manifests decades later as depression, strained family relationships, and a lifelong sense of undeserved guilt and fear of authority.”
Studies have shown that as adverse childhood experiences (ACE) – which include parental separation, incarcerated household members, emotional neglect, and physical neglect – increase, so did the risk of experiencing sexual violence in adulthood. This means that by forcibly separating children from their parents or incarcerating them with their families, the administration is subjecting children to adverse childhood experiences that can leave them vulnerable to violence as they grow older.
Additionally, the aforementioned fear of authority that results from the trauma of being detained during childhood can prevent the currently detained or separated children from seeking help later on in life if they experience sexual or domestic violence. Regardless of the outcome of immigration policies – whether these children are deported from the United States or if they’re given a path to citizenship – this fear of authority instilled in them from a young age will likely continue to haunt them long after the inhumane immigration policies are removed.
Similarly, this cruelty towards undocumented immigrants – as epitomized by the separation and detainment of young children – will further increase the fear of authority for undocumented persons currently living in the US. Various reports have already shown that many survivors of domestic or sexual violence do not seek help due to their fear of deportation. In fact, according to a NY Times article published in 2017, reports of sexual and domestic violence among Latinxs across the country have had a sharp downturn since the 2016 presidential election – which many experts attribute to the increased fears of deportation. And now, with this cruel and immoral immigration policy, this fear of authority and fear to seek help will likely only worsen for undocumented survivors of violence. This means survivors may be forced to stay in unsafe situations and have less access to support.
If children are not immediately reunited with their parents and if our nation continues to impede reproductive justice by revoking parents’ rights to parent their children in safe, supportive environments, we will be a nation that traumatizes children and fails to protect and support survivors of violence. First Focus, an organization dedicated to prioritizing children and families in federal policy decisions, suggests child-friendly alternatives to detaining families, such as community-based programs that address families awaiting their immigration proceedings. Not only are such programs significantly more cost-efficient, ranging from 70 cents to $17 dollars a day instead of the $373 daily cost of detaining a mother or child, but they allow children to live in a home setting, enroll in school, and can assist their families in connecting to crucial legal assistance and social services.
Today, I ask us all to remember. Remember our past. Remember our nation’s – and humanity’s – shameful times, as to not repeat them. And remember our most glorious times – the times when we exhibited kindness, the times when we protected those who were most vulnerable, the times when we made sure that good triumphed over evil. And, many, many years from now, may we remember today as a time when families were safe, when children were protected, and when humanity remained steadfast in the fight for justice.
Featured image source: https://www.zazzle.com/immigrant_justice_mini_poster-228432137731714096
Maryum Elnasseh is a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.