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 (, 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.

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