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Immigration Reform Must Lead with Humanity and an Understanding of Trauma

Immigration Reform Must Lead with Humanity and an Understanding of Trauma

Photo credit: John Moore, Getty Images

Update: President Trump signed an executive order on June 20, 2018, ending his policy of separating families. However, the crisis continues as this harmful policy would merely be replaced with another profoundly harmful policy – the indefinite detention of families. Moreover, there is no plan to reunite the thousands of already separated children with their parent(s). Therefore, the information provided below (published before the issuance of the executive order) remains relevant and useful.

By Ariel Zwang
June 20, 2018

Since early May, a reported 2,342 children have been separated from their parents after crossing the southern U.S. border. As a mom and the CEO of Safe Horizon, the nation’s largest victim services agency, I am deeply troubled and saddened by these recent developments. Separating a child from a safe caregiver is harmful to any child. And that harm is magnified if the child has a history of experiencing or witnessing violence, or living in a dangerous and unpredictable environment. Moreover, placing children in institutional settings without their parents can make them vulnerable to abuse here in the United States.

The painful reality is that many children and their parents or caregivers are fleeing domestic abuse, gang killings and other forms of violence in their home countries, desperately seeking a path to safety. Despite this reality, migrating is not easy as they leave behind their loved ones and communities. The journey can be long and treacherous.

Safety is one of the most fundamental human needs. And at Safe Horizon, we unequivocally believe that all people deserve a life free of violence regardless of immigration status. Yes, we need comprehensive immigration reform. But that reform must lead with humanity and an understanding of trauma.

To discuss, I sat down with two of my trusted colleagues, Deputy CEO Liz Roberts, and Director of Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project (ILP) Evangeline Chan. We talked about what makes this policy different from past immigration policies, why separating children from their parents is harmful, what we think would be a better immigration policy for survivors, the importance of asylum for survivors of domestic violence, and much more.

The U.S. Government has long been trying to address the flow of migrants coming across the southern border. How is this new policy different from past immigration policies?

EVANGELINE: In the last few years, there has been an increase in the number of families crossing the border together. The issue that arose was how to handle them. Under current laws and regulations, children arriving unaccompanied at the border are handled differently from adults—adults could be detained but children could not be held for long periods of time. Instead, children are released to sponsors or family members in the U.S. willing to take responsibility for them. When there was a “surge” of families crossing together around 2014 and 2015, the government was faced with a dilemma: what to do with the children who came with their parent(s)—process them like children or like adults? What the Obama Administration did was detain them all together in family detention centers. This was also controversial: immigration advocates generally oppose detention, especially of children, and there were reports of substandard conditions, inadequate care, abuse and denial of access to legal counsel. But, at least families were kept together, which is really important to a child’s well-being.

What is new under President Trump is this “zero tolerance policy” and the separation of families. Our government is now prosecuting anyone crossing over illegally – even if they are seeking asylum. The adults are being criminally charged and detained separately from their children. This means that children, some reportedly only months-old,are being detained without their parent(s) to care for them while they follow the track of eventually being released to shelters or foster care.

LIZ: One of the things that really troubles me about the way the policy is being implemented is that it appears that many children are being placed in large, institutional facilities. We know from years of experience in the child welfare field that this practice is incredibly damaging. Young children should never be in institutional settings. The lack of a consistent caregiver is incredibly harmful to their development. And they’re really vulnerable to abuse in these types of settings.

Let’s talk about the children who are being separated. What impact could separation have on them?

LIZ: Children’s healthy development depends on secure attachment to a consistent, nurturing caregiver. We’ve known this for 70 years. That secure attachment to one or more caregivers is what allows a child to have the confidence to explore the world, to learn, to develop both social and emotional competence and their full cognitive potential.

One thing that we know about childhood trauma is that the cumulative impact of multiple traumatic events is much, much worse than just one traumatic experience. We’re talking about children here who have lived in neighborhoods and communities where there was a lot of violence, where they felt unsafe, where their parents felt unsafe. But at least they had their caregivers as a source of protection and reassurance. By now removing a child from their parent, we’re adding another potentially traumatic event. It greatly increases the likelihood that these children will have lifelong struggles.

And what are some of the long-term struggles?

LIZ: We know from the ACEs study and other research that trauma increases the risk of poor educational outcomes, unemployment, substance abuse, chronic health issues, depression, and PTSD. We also know from many years of research that the best way to prevent those outcomes is for a parent or caregiver to be supported in helping the child feel safe again.

Many young children are referred to our Counseling Center because they have witnessed violence or been physically or sexually abused. Our approach is always to work with caregiver and child together because we know that the caregiver’s ability to help the child regulate their emotions and to reestablish a sense of security is the most important thing for a child’s healing.

EVANGELINE: And this is a compelling reason why we should not be separating families. Children require special treatment.

What would be a better policy?

LIZ: For starters, the policy should be to keep families together unless there is a clear instance where the parent is a threat to the child. And I would hope for us to have a compassionate immigration policy where we create avenues for families fleeing danger to enter the U.S. safely and be given thoughtful consideration for temporary or permanent residency here.

EVANGELINE: I absolutely agree. Detention is not the answer unless a person is a flight risk or threat to the public’s safety. There are alternatives to keeping track of immigrants that the U.S Government should utilize, such as supervised check-ins.

At Safe Horizon, we have an anti-racist framework. If we look at this recent policy with that lens, we see that this country has a history of immigration policies that create additional barriers and hardships for people of color. How do you see this new policy, given the historical context?

EVANGELINE: The Administration claims it is deterrence. However, this policy affects mostly Mexican and Central American crossers (nationals of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), many of whom are fleeing for their lives and coming to the U.S. to seek asylum. Turning them away or in any way “deterring” them from seeking refuge here is contrary to our obligations under international law, which requires us not to return a person to their home country if they fear persecution there.

LIZ: This policy is creating more barriers for survivors of violence from these countries, and it unfairly targets Latinos/Latinx. It’s disheartening, racist, and misguided.

Many of the individuals migrating are fleeing violence and seeking safety through asylum. At Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project (ILP) what are some of the common reasons clients are seeking asylum and how have you seen it improve their lives?

EVANGELINE: A lot of the individuals and families we help to apply for asylum have suffered gang-based or gender-based violence. When we are able to successfully obtain asylum for a survivor, it essentially saves their lives. It grants them protection. They can live and work here lawfully. They can be reunited with their family. They have a pathway to permanent resident status and citizenship. They can begin to rebuild their lives with stability and security.

LIZ: Asylum has been an important avenue to safety for so many survivors of horrifying violence and abuse. We were also deeply troubled by Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent decision to create significant new barriers for individuals and families seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing domestic or gang violence in their home countries.

For immigrant communities viewing this news and feeling more frightened to seek help from non-profits or government entities, especially if they may be victims of violence themselves, what is your message to them? How can Safe Horizon help?

EVANGELINE: I want the immigrant community to know that we are fighting hard for you. We hear and share your concerns. We are doing all we can to fight back against these dangerous and harmful policies and we are not giving up. At ILP, we can help you seek safety and protection under the immigration laws. We are here for you.

LIZ: I want immigrant victims of violence to know that we stand with you today and always. Always. At Safe Horizon, we will continue to defend and fight for your humanity and safety.

At Safe Horizon, we firmly believe that a person’s legal status should not be a barrier to their ability to seek help, obtain justice, and live a life free from violence. To reach Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project, please call: 718-943-8632 or visit the webpage.