Children and the trauma of immigration

Immigrant children have become the collateral damage of the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policies aimed at their parents, as well as “bargaining chips” in the administration’s negotiations with Congress. In addition, our current administration probably hopes that its disdainful treatment of children at the border will be a deterrent to Central American families contemplating life in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is making families sufficiently desperate to underestimate the hardships of travel north by bus, truck or on foot; the trauma of crossing our southern border without papers; and the heartbreak of separation from their children during detention, including the possibility of their disappearance or even death. 

Recently, I met a couple in their 20s who had just arrived from Guatemala with two little preschool girls. We were in the office of a social worker, to whom they had come for help in obtaining medical care for the mother and a lawyer to represent them at court hearings in fall. If their story seemed free of the worst disasters, they had certainly had opportunities for trauma.

Knowing virtually no English, the parents described in Spanish their crossing of the Rio Grande on inner tubes, each holding one child. Somehow they had lost track of each other as they entered U.S. territory. Encountering the border patrol, without proper documents, the parents were arrested separately and given different dates to appear in immigration court. Still, unable to find, or even communicate with each other, but knowing the address of a family member in Connecticut, the husband and wife separately made their way north, each traveling with one child, and were miraculously reunited at the home of this family member.   

The little girls were pretty but frail in their fresh white blouses. They quietly occupied themselves with crayons and paper the social worker had given them, making no demands on the adults in the room. When would they be able to tell their own stories? Would their words be Spanish or in English, a language they did not yet know? In the meantime, their little bodies would hold their silent fears. 

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (www.nctsn.org), children may be traumatized when they fear for their lives, believe they might be injured, witness violence, experience a sudden and drastic separation from a loved one, or simply become refugees. 

The parents had said little about why they had left everything to come to the U.S., and their immigration experience, as they told it, seemed comparatively benign: No one had spent significant time in detention, and both children had apparently remained with one parent. Nevertheless, crossing the Rio Grande in an inner tube, losing a parent and a sibling, and encountering the border patrol, had all been potentially traumatizing for the little girls. Moreover, although the family’s life was relatively stable for the time being, the little girls might well be re-traumatized this coming fall, when one by one, two months apart, their parents would be called before an immigration judge. Without an attorney with a well-developed argument that the family needs asylum, which the family was unlikely to afford, one or both parents might well leave court with a deportation order; the family would likely be separated, or everyone would suddenly be back in Guatemala. 

The six tragic deaths of immigrant children while in detention shocked our nation. But the problem with federal policies that ignore the fragility of children goes far beyond the latest policy of holding children in detention with nothing to do because recreation and schooling are being eliminated to save money.  Long after a traumatic experience, childhood survivors may suffer from emotional upset, depression, difficulties with self-regulation, inattention, academic difficulties, and trouble sleeping and eating. Childhood survivors are also more likely to have long-term health problems, to use health and mental health services, and to be involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

These are heartbreaking costs to the families who gave up their homeland for a better life — and they are costs that our country, which will become home to some of these immigrants, has not begun to consider.

 

Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.

Latest News

Housy squeaks past Nonnewaug in quarterfinal clash

Kylie Leonard and Ireland Starziski battled from start to finish.

Riley Klein

FALLS VILLAGE — Housatonic Valley Regional High School (HVRHS) girls basketball advanced to the Berkshire League (BL) tournament semifinals after a 34-31 win over Nonnewaug High School Friday, Feb. 16, in the opening round.

The game went back and forth for four quarters before the Mountaineers pulled ahead in the final seconds and hung on for the victory. HVRHS’ voracious man-to-man defense tipped the scale in this otherwise evenly matched showdown. The Mountaineers secured revenge over the Chiefs, who eliminated HVRHS last year in the 2023 BL tournament.

Keep ReadingShow less
Theresa Marie Murtagh

MILLERTON — Theresa Marie Murtagh, 74, a thirty year resident of Poughkeepsie, and most recently a twenty year resident of Millerton, died unexpectedly on Feb. 13, 2024, at Sharon Hospital. Mrs. Murtagh was a retired secretary, having worked for Marine Midland Bank in Wappingers Falls, She also worked as a secretary for a medical laboratory in Poughkeepsie for many years.

Born Nov. 12, 1949, in Sharon, she was the daughter of the late James O. and Mary F. (Canevari) Hoysradt. She graduated with the class of 1967 from Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Pougkeepsie. She then studied business at Dutchess Community College. On Nov. 8, 1969, at St. Patrick’s Church in Millerton, she married Joseph P. Murtagh. Mr. Murtagh survives at home in Millerton.

Keep ReadingShow less
Housatonic FFA gives back to local nonprofits

Kayla Jacquier, vice president of Housatonic Valley FFA, thanked the recipient organizations for their dedication to the community.

Riley Klein

FALLS VILLAGE — A successful season at the FFA Holiday Store in December 2023 resulted in surplus funds, which the members of Housatonic Valley FFA donated back to the community Thursday, Feb. 15.

A total of $6,000 was donated to area food banks and support agencies. FFA gave $1,000 to each food bank: Fishes and Loaves Food Pantry, Corner Food Pantry, Cornwall Food and Fuel Fund, Kent Food Bank, and Sharon Food Bank. Additionally, $500 was donated to The Little Guild (animal rescue) and Jane Lloyd Fund (cancer support).

Keep ReadingShow less
Student art show shines with contemporary talent

Gabe Heebner, a senior at HVRHS, was awarded “Best in Show” at the student art show at the KAA on Saturday, Feb. 10.

Leila Hawken

Now well into its 101st year of serving the community, the nonprofit Kent Art Association (KAA) opened its 32nd annual student art show Saturday, Feb. 10, attracting student artists, their teachers and the arts community to celebrate the wealth of young talent being nurtured in area public and private schools.

Participating in this year’s show were students from seven area schools, including Millbrook (New York) High School, Housatonic Valley Regional High School (HVRHS), Forman School, Marvelwood School, The Frederick Gunn School, The Hotchkiss School and The Kent School.

Keep ReadingShow less