Should Children of Illegal Immigrants Be Used as Deterrence?

Children who lose the protection of their parents face grave psychological risk.

Posted Jun 18, 2018

If the goal of separating children from their parents when they cross the U.S. border illegally is to improve security and make America a better place to live, the outcomes from this policy may actually be the opposite of what’s intended. Research on children, especially immigrant children, who come into the care of the state should be a reminder that we must proceed with caution. Beyond the inhumanity of forced separations from parents, we could wind up with far more serious long-term problems such as badly traumatized children who will struggle to become contributing, employable members of their communities. That would be both tragic and regrettable as the solution to this unwanted future is as simple as maintaining family unification.

Now, in fairness to everyone on all sides of this debate, some of the blame for this inhumane situation rests with parents who have endangered their children by bringing them illegally across the border. Still, by that logic, we would have to condemn (and incarcerate) every parent who does something ill-advised in an effort to improve their child’s life. I can think of a few sports parents in my own community who bully coaches or yell insults at the referees as a case in point. Parents, even financially secure, well-housed, dominant culture parents living in safe communities do almost anything to give their children a chance at a better future (even if that is just making it onto a better team).

But to warehouse children for the sake of scoring political points? The price of deterrence is just too high, not just for the children, but for the communities that will inherit these traumatized kids afterwards.

On the surface, the facilities now housing thousands of immigrant children may not look all that horrific even if they are converted Walmart Supercentres like the facility in Brownsville, Texas with over 1400 children inside. According to reports on radio and in newspapers, these facilities provide the children with rooms that house four, maybe five youth at a time, separated by gender (which of course means sibling groups are torn apart, a far from ideal situation). There are opportunities for minimal education as well, and most of the children’s medical and other basic needs are met adequately. According to those who have toured these facilities, the goal, it seems, is to move children out of these places within two months and to reunify them with family already in the US or to send them back across the border to wherever home is. On the surface, it doesn’t look inhumane, even when Supercentres are replaced with air conditioned “soft-sided” shelters (a.k.a. tents) as is now occurring in Tornillo, Texas. Housing, education, food. Tick, tick, tick. Except, children need much, much more if they are to develop well. Separate them from their caregivers and we have known for decades that it will take children years and years to undo the harm done to them. That’s not some fake news hyperbole. It is pure and simple the result of good social science conducted with populations all around the world.

We should have learned from the mistakes of previous generations of misinformed policy makers. In Canada, Australia, and the United States, forced removal of Indigenous (Native American) children from their parents and placement in residential schools for more than a century was nothing less than cultural genocide that produced generations of traumatized children who became traumatized adults who found it difficult to succeed as parents. There are plenty of other examples around the world and they all end poorly. Even the insular Swiss implemented a domestic policy that removed poor children from their parents from the 1850s to the middle of the 20th Century, using these “Verdingkinder” as indentured labourers to solve a labour crisis on farms that lacked mechanization. The results were children who experienced gross neglect and the scars of family separation that endured well into their adult years. Take a look around the world, and one finds other forms of forced family breakdown, always with psychological scars on the child victims.

Even if the children of illegal migrants wind up with extended family in the US, or deported back home, the results will still be suboptimal. Unattached children and those forcibly placed with extended family they never knew (and without a parent there to keep things civil) are extremely vulnerable to abuse. That’s true for children from every culture and background, whether that’s Swiss children on farms, Indigenous children in residential schools, or migrant children in the US. Even if these horrific acts of violence do not occur, most children can expect to be denied love and will certainly know the sting of emotional separation. Children with profiles like these have a greater likelihood of growing up and becoming a burden on their communities through no fault of their own. This is not the path to security, not domestically or internationally. It may not even respect the rule of international law which has been designed with research in mind to protect children’s rights and developmental needs (for a deeper understanding of all this, there are the World Health Organization’s Mental Health Surveys which are discussed by Kessler et al., 2010).

We can, therefore, reasonably expect that the long-term consequences of separating children from their parents will be a generation of children with compromised psychosocial functioning. Some, of course, will do fine (there will be plenty of attention devoted to the few who "beat the odds"), but the majority will experience the kind of trauma that prevents them from engaging properly at school, or work, and in their future relationships. Rather than productive contributors to their communities, paying taxes and becoming gainfully employed, this policy of separation is the first step towards psychological harm and threatens our collective security that comes when people who are hurt and treated unjustly grow up in a cycle of poverty and social exclusion. In truth, it is a “Pay now, or pay later” situation. A better choice would be never pay at all and instead create the conditions for children to develop the resilience they will need to make a smooth transition through the process of migration. That begins with keeping children with their parents. Even if these families are eventually sent back home, a unified family buffers children against the challenges that come with migration and deportation. To an individual child, as long as the relationship with her caregiver is consistent, the impact of dislocation will be minimized.

Such arguments, of course, are not going to sway anyone who has made up his mind and wants to punish immigrants and their children. What might happen, though, if we think about this problem a little differently? What do we know about migrant children and how to best help them cope in a situation where the state has decided to intervene and separate them from their parents? What does the science tell us are the best strategies for their success in a situation that we can’t change?

The best strategies respond to the real threats to children’s psychosocial wellbeing. For example, there are a host of challenges waiting for children who are separated from their families like language barriers and financial insecurity. Both are easily solved, the first through education (good language classes are not a big part of the programming inside shelters but could be in community schools where there are English speaking children to interact with), and the second by ensuring quick reunification with a parent or financial support for the families that are asked to foster an immigrant child. By far, though, the best solution is always quick family reunification for child migrants. If longitudinal data is correct, then migrants who arrive as families move from financial dependency to being taxpayers much faster than when families are fractured by the immigration process. Some recent data from Canada, in fact, analysed by colleagues of mine Dr. Yoko Yoshida and Dr. Johnathan Amoyaw, has used immigration landing files from 1980 to 2000 to show that children who arrive with a caregiver have the greatest likelihood of becoming income earners (and therefore taxpayers) by the age of twenty.

While that tells us a thing or two about the benefits of helping children cope with migration and succeed, there remain a host of other barriers in their way. According to a 2011 paper by Cecilia Ayón at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work, there is a greater risk of social problems and exposure to violence when immigrant children’s kinship networks are fragile and stressed financially. This occurs frequently when children are forcibly placed with kin who lack the financial resources to raise them. The more we subject families who take in these children to an unexpected financial burden, the more likely these families are to report domestic violence which means more children traumatized even more.

And the problems keep mounting, especially if children remain in institutional settings where it is impossible to supervise them adequately or form trusting relationships, no matter how dedicated staff are to keeping children safe. I know this first hand from my time working in the juvenile corrections system. Traumatized children are not known for their self-regulation or polite self-expression when they are angry and scared. That is a dangerous situation for children to be in, especially when they are vulnerable to physical and sexual violence by other children in the institution.

While I can understand the need to secure borders, the practice of separating children from their parents, and imprisoning those parents for illegally crossing the border into the US may be a too high a price and the consequences for these children far too great to be worth the deterrent.


Ayon, C. (2011). Latino child welfare: Parents' well-being at the time of entry. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 92(3), 295-300.

Kessler, R. C., McLaughlin, K. A., Green, J. G., Gruber, M. J., Sampson, N. A., Zaslavsky, A. M., . . . Angermeyer, M. (2010). Childhood adversities and adult psychopathology in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 197(5), 378-385.