The Traumatic Events Migrant Children Endure

The United States has long employed tactics of family separation in order to dissuade immigrants from undertaking the treacherous journey across the southern border. Prior to the Trump administration, families were generally paroled into the United States to wait for their immigration cases to be processed or the families were detained all together.[1] Under the Obama administration, families were detained in detention facilities together, but after a legal challenge, families were released out of detention after being held for a limited time.[2] However, in 2017 the Trump administration instituted the El Paso program, which allowed law enforcement to detain and criminally charge adults making unauthorized crossings over the border.[3] This was a pilot program for the zero tolerance policy the administration implemented in May of 2018.[4] No exceptions were made for adults entering the country with children. This program had no clear system to later reunite families or allow parents to find their children.[5] Instead, law enforcement took the children and put them in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services.[6]

Congressional Democrats created a report on this program which suggested federal employees were prohibited from speaking openly with reporters regarding the family separations and the overly crowded facilities.[7] However, in 2019, a New York Times reporter spoke on the record with one of the employees of Bethany Christian Services, a foster care and adoption agency contracted to house immigrant children. The employee explained that prior to the zero tolerance policy, Bethany Christian Service organization mainly cared for teenagers crossing the border by themselves. However, during the summer of 2017, the agency received countless “inconsolable” young children separated from their families.[8]

For example, Sandra Rodríguez last saw her ten-year-old son, Gerson, when she pushed him on a raft into the river.[9] She expected that the Border Patrol would detain him for a few days, then he would be sent to a government shelter for migrant children where her brother in Houston could claim him.[10] Ms. Rodriguez had not heard from Gerson, her brother, or any authorities after six days and she was getting frantic.[11] Finally, a cousin in Honduras called Ms. Rodriguez to say that she was with Gerson. He was crying, appeared disoriented, and extremely confused as to how he ended up in the same place from which he had fled.[12]

This is one story amongst hundreds in which the U.S. immigration system traumatizes migrant children. These children suffer four major traumatic events: (1) a move to a new country, (2) separation from a family member, (3) detainment by immigration authorities, and (4) possible placement with a foster family.

Trauma #1: The Move to a New Country

Moving homes frequently can significantly impact any child. Each move allows for a decline in a child’s social skills, as well as creates emotional and behavioral problems.[13] Studies have shown the more times children move, the more likely they are to report lower satisfaction with their life as adults.[14] This is partly due to the inability to form deep connections with others.[15] Moving numerous times makes it extremely difficult for children to form long-term, close connections with others, especially if those children are introverts and already have trouble making social relations.[16]

Migration to the U.S. is a complex process which starts in the home country, extends through the journey to a new country, and continues upon arriving in the new country.[17] Studies have shown that the migration process contributes to the mental health of Latinx adults and children.[18] These studies show that experiences during one stage of the migration process will build on the remaining stages of the journey.[19] Non-citizens entering the United States without authorization are at a substantial risk of trauma and developing post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and children are particularly vulnerable to victimization during the migration journey.[20] This includes exposure to the same risks as adults, such as financial exploitation, risk of trafficking, or physical threats, but with the added layer of naivety.

Trauma #2: Separation from Parent or Family Member

Upon apprehension at the border, families are put into detention centers and then separated. The children would be shuttled to a facility to be housed, while their parents would be detained or deported.[21] Being separated from a parent or a primary caregiver is one of the most traumatic stressors for a young child.[22] This separation can create an inability to trust, diminish the child’s ability to soothe themselves, and destroy foundations to create meaningful relationships.[23] If the child has to physically see the separation and is ripped from their parent or caregiver, this triggers a fear response in the children which can affect them emotionally, physiological, and cognitively for the rest of their lives.[24]

Researchers have observed the mental health of immigrant children who were separated from their family members. This research stated some of the children that were separated from their parents required emergency psychiatric care to manage their mental health distress.[25] The longer that children were held in these facilities, the worse their mental health became.[26]

The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law (“CHRCL”) spoke with various children in these detention centers about the conditions. A sixteen-year-old girl told the group that she, along with twenty other teenagers with babies, were placed in a metal cage with a mylar blanket.[27] A twelve-year-old boy said that he woke up with hunger at four in the morning, but there was not enough food at the facilities.[28] Another seventeen-year-old boy said that the toilet in his cage was not working, that the children were not provided with soap or toothpaste, and that none of the children in his cage had been able to shower.[29]

Trauma #3: Staying in a Detention Center

These temporary detention centers also represent a major source of trauma for children. Besides the network of fences imprisoning these children, these facilities are cold and barren, giving the impression not of safety, but of criminality and punishment.[30] These facilities place around twenty children in a room which gives them little to no personal space.[31] There are no windows to give them sunlight and extremely minimal amenities, such as soap or toothpaste.[32]

These conditions more closely resemble prison than a facility for children.[33]

The conditions in these detention centers fall so short of the goal of minimizing trauma that one cannot help but wonder if they were designed to do the opposite. The medical facilities are inadequate at best and facilities lack enough food to properly feed all the children staying there.[34] These prison-like housing facilities are extremely cold and often result in the children sleeping on the floor due to overcrowding.[35]

This amount of stress placed on a child can have short-term and long-term effects on children.[36] These effects can be demonstrated through regressive behavior, such as a child who has mastered bed-wetting reverting back to wetting the bed or a child may stop speaking.[37] When a child is under stress, stress hormones rise and ignite these fight-or-flight responses to protect them.[38] These stress hormones do not go down until the child feels safe and returns to their baseline of emotions.[39] However, if the child is constantly feeling like she is in danger, these stress hormones do not diminish and this leads to long term medical problems, learning problems, and even developmental problems.[40]

Trauma #4: Getting a Foster Family or Being Put in a Child Welfare Institution

Even institutions with the best intentions can further traumatize these migrant children. The very nature of these programs warps a child’s attachment and gives a decent amount of “tough love” to children. These programs are supposed to comfort and support the child through this difficult time.

After staying in these detention facilities, a child may be placed with a family member inside the United States or with a foster family until their immigration case is dealt with in court. However, orphanages and other institutional settings within the child welfare system have a very high turnover rate.[41] The number of children assigned to one caregiver is also very high, and combined with how quickly these caregivers leave, a lot of these children will feel abandonment over and over again.[42]

This rotation of new caregivers causes impersonal, unstable, and fragmented care.[43] Continued stress, such as lack of connection with a caregiver or constant fear of abandonment by a caregiver, can hinder a child’s growth through height and weight, as well as brain development.[44] The longer a child lacks a dependable caregiver, the longer time will be needed to recover and catch up to their peers.[45]

In addition to caregivers leaving frequently within government agencies, changing foster homes increases the trauma these migrant children experience. Research has shown that one-fifth of placement alterations are due to a child’s behavioral issue.[46] The longer these problems are left unaddressed, the more likely it is that the child will begin showing external and internal psychological stresses.[47] This results in more displacements and adjusting to a new environment all over again. When a placement is interrupted and the child is moved to another foster care home, the child will feel the impact of this rejection and guilt. The more placements a child has, the more trauma will be carried by the child.[48]

One key way to improve placement stability in the foster care system is to place children with relatives or family members whenever possible.[49] Research has shown that placing children with family members improves the child’s behavior, mental health, and general well-being.[50] Another way agencies have been improving foster children’s mental health is to formally integrate child welfare and behavioral health agencies.[51] This creates more stability for the children involved with both systems, which includes most migrant children in the foster care system.[52]

Ways to Help Combat Compounding Trauma on Migrant Children Held in Detention Centers

Foster parents or child welfare professionals that do not understand how to appropriately read and react to a child displaying signs of trauma may misjudge the child’s behavior. They may make efforts to address these behaviors, but can be ineffective in handling the child’s emotions.

A psychologist from Rhode Island College, Kalina Brabeck, worked with immigrant children who lost a parent or both parents to deportation. She stated that these children demonstrated similar PTSD symptoms as war veterans.[53] She stated that a goal of treating these children is assisting them with a daily identity crisis. She had them draw and walk-through things the children were good at, their migration story, and simple things showing who they are.[54] This helps the children come out of their shells and confront assumptions such as how dangerous the world around them truly is.[55]

One key thing foster parents can do to minimize further trauma to a migrant child would be to practice Trauma-Informed Care. This stresses how common trauma is and how this trauma can negatively affect a child’s life.[56] These practices assist professionals and families in rebuilding a child’s self-confidence and develop a sense of control in their life.[57] This approach requires assessments by professionals and coordination between the foster family and these professionals to prevent ongoing trauma or further mental health problems.[58]

Various child welfare agencies, such as AdoptUSKids, Alternative Family Services, and the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, give suggestions for how to manage if a child is acting out and having a trauma reaction. One agency advised that parents should not be afraid to discuss the traumatic event with their children.[59] If children sense that the foster parents are upset about the event, they will not want to bring it up.[60] The parent should not bring the topic up themselves, but if the child mentions it, the foster parent should lean in and listen.[61]

Giving a child a predictable daily schedule helps with adjusting to a new home.[62] New or different activities may frighten a child in that the parent may come across as anxious or confused.[63] Traumatized children are sensitive to control and this may send them into a frenzy.

Overall, foster parents and child welfare advocates should be nurturing and comforting in the appropriate context. Intimacy can be confusing and bring up memories of abandonment for this child, causing them to panic.[64] A general rule of thumb is to be physically affectionate if the child seeks it out.[65] However, interrupting a child by grabbing them or holding them can cause a trauma response.[66]


The immigration system only further traumatized migrant children by stripping them from their family, placing them in detention centers, and then allowing a foster family unequipped to address their trauma to step in to act as a parental figure. If the separations had not happened, these major traumatic events could have been avoided and these children would not be in such a miserable mental state. However, given the fact that these separations did happen, foster families and child welfare agencies need to take proper steps in ensuring no further trauma is forced upon these children.

The current Biden administration is still scrambling to process children migrants.[67] As of March of 2021, the administration was utilizing overflow facilities made famous by the previous Trump administration by images of children in cages.[68] The Biden administration has continued Trump’s policy of ordering every migrant expelled back to Mexico or their home country if they attempted to cross the border; however, the current administration is admitting unaccompanied minors even while expelling adults and children who enter with families.[69]

This has resulted in a new form of family separation, but it is happening in Mexico rather than inside the U.S. government facilities.[70] Many families choose to stick together, but word has spread of unaccompanied minors being admitted.[71] This makes the process extremely difficult on families, but especially children. The need for trauma-informed care within foster families and child welfare agencies is still extremely prevalent and necessary to adequately care for migrant children.

  1. Family Separation under the Trump administration – a timeline, Southern Poverty Law Center, June 17, 2020,
  2. Miriam Valverde. Fact-check: Did Obama have a family separation policy before Trump?, Statesmen News Network, June 25, 2019,
  3. Family Separation under the Trump administration – a timeline, supra 2.
  4. Lisa Riordan Seville and Hannah Rappleye, Trump admin ran ‘pilot program’ for separating migrant families in 2017, MSNBC News, June 29, 2018,
  5. Id.
  6. Family Separation under the Trump administration a timeline, supra 2.
  7. Nomaan Merchant, Report: US knew of problems family separation cause, The Associated Press, Oct. 29, 2020,
  8. Caitlin Dickerson, What It Looks Like to Care for Separated Migrant Children, The New York Times, June 18, 2019,
  9. Caitlin Dickerson, 10 Years Old, Tearful and Confused After a Sudden Deportation, New York Times, Oct. 21, 2020,
  10. Id.
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. Rebekah Levine Conley and Melissa Kull, Is Moving During Childhood Harmful? – Multiple residential moves take a toll on children, but the effects may fade with time, Child Development, Volume 87, Issue 4, pg. 1204-1220, Jul. 2016,
  14. Shigehiro Oishi and Ulrich Shimmack, Residential Mobility, Well-Being, and Mortality, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 95, No. 6, pg. 980-994, June 2010,
  15. Id.
  16. Id.
  17. Krista M. Perreira and India Ornelas, Painful Passages: Traumatic Experiences and Post-Traumatic Stress among Immigrant Latino Adolescents and their Primary Caregivers, International Migration Review, July 19, 2018,
  18. Id.
  19. Id.
  20. Id.
  21. Teo Armus, The parents of 545 children separated at the border still haven’t been found, The Washington Post. October 21, 2020,
  22. Key Points: Traumatic Separation and Refugee & Immigrant Children, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network,
  23. Id.
  24. Id.
  25. US watchdog says migrant children suffered trauma after family separations, CNBC, Sept. 4, 2019,
  26. Id.
  27. Chantal da Silva, Migrant Children Share Heartbreaking Stories of What It’s Like to Be Locked in U.S. Detention Centers: ‘There Are No Activities, Only Crying’, Newsweek, June 28, 2019,
  28. Id.
  29. Id.
  30. Judy Woodruff, Detained migrant children suffer ‘trauma after trauma,’ say pediatric experts, Public Broadcasting Station – News Hour, September 17, 2019,
  31. Da Silva, supra 28.
  32. Id.
  33. Id.
  34. Id.
  35. Id.
  36. Id.
  37. Id.
  38. Id.
  39. Id.
  40. Id.
  41. Benedict Carey, A Troubling Prognosis for Migrant Children in Detention: ‘The Earlier They’re Out, the Better’, The New York Times, June 18, 2018,
  42. Id.
  43. Id.
  44. Id.
  45. Id.
  46. Jessica Dym Bartlett and Berenice Rushovich, Implementation of Trauma Systems Therapy-Foster Care in child welfare, Children and Youth Services Review, Volume 91, May 1, 2018, https://doi.10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.05.021.
  47. Id.
  48. Id.
  49. How can we improve placement stability for children in foster care?, Casey Family Programs, Oct. 3, 2018,
  50. Id.
  51. Id.
  52. Id.
  53. Carey, supra 28.
  54. Id.
  55. Id.
  56. Bartlett and Rushovich, supra 33.
  57. Id.
  58. Id.
  59. Trauma and children: An introduction for foster parents, NC Division of Social Services and the Family and Children’s Resource Program, Views on Foster Care and Adoption in North Carolina: Fostering Perspectives. Vol 10, Issue 1, Nov. 2005,
  60. Id.
  61. Id.
  62. Id.
  63. Id.
  64. Id.
  65. Id.
  66. Id.
  67. Jack Herrera, Biden Brings Back Family Separation – This Time in Mexico, Politico Magazine, Mar. 20, 2021,
  68. Id.
  69. Id.
  70. Id.
  71. Id.