Caging Children: US Policy Traumatizes the Most Vulnerable

Research demonstrates the traumatic impact of separating children from families.

Posted Jun 29, 2018

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This inscription on the Statue of Liberty has been a beacon to the world. Lately, it seems that this quotation has become conditional. An addendum could be “Offer may vary”. Or, “Huddled masses from Norway preferred.” Why? 

A majority of Republicans support the President’s “zero tolerance” policy on families of color on the southern border. What’s that you say? No, it is the President’s policy. Not the Democrats’ law. He said he couldn’t do anything about the zero tolerance policy, and then he did something about it. At any rate, 53 percent of the GOP support a policy that violates international law, and places children at severe psychological risk. What’s that? The migrant parents shouldn’t have broken the law and they wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place if they hadn’t? Presenting one’s self at the border or seeking asylum is not actually breaking a law. Asylum seekers are allowed to do just that. And crossing the border illegally has historically been a misdemeanor, with which the perpetrator may or may not be charged.

Why are many of these folks seeking asylum? Because they come from countries where the murder rate is the highest in the world, and lots of children are being murdered as well. For example, homicide rates in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are ranked first, fourth and fifth in the world, and more than a quarter of homicide victims are under the age of 20 (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2013). “Most youth face extreme hardship in their countries of origin and these hardships seem to continue in the post-migration context. Youth run to the U.S. only to stand still – often facing immigration limbo [and] deportation” (Jodi Cardoso, in press). Many persons presenting themselves at our borders migrate to survive. Many are legitimate asylum seekers.

At least 2,342 children (NPR, June 19, 2018) were already separated from their parents before the zero tolerance policy the President said he could do nothing about was apparently rescinded by his executive order. The parents do not know where their children are; the children do not know where their parents are. Some children have been photographed in cages, and huddled under Mylar blankets in cold rooms. (The same company responsible for detaining these young people and is profiting handsomely off their misery also contributed $170,000 to the current President’s campaign [Bloomberg, June 28, 2018]. That in itself stinks). The images are outrageous to people whose care extends beyond their own children and families, to persons capable of empathy and compassion.

I am a licensed therapist and a published researcher specializing in the area of trauma, and I can tell you this: Studies clearly demonstrate the traumatic impact of forced separation of children from their parents (USA Today, June 28, 2018). The emotional trauma caused by this policy damages children’s brains. Yes, severe psychological stress causes damage much like what one would see from blunt force trauma. Severe anxiety, depression, and PTSD are common when children are separated from their families. The capacity for healthy and secure emotional attachment can also be disrupted in the case of younger persons. And being separated from one’s parents and not knowing when you are going to see them again is a severe psychological stressor. Have you ever lost track of a child in your care for 15 seconds at the mall, or at a public pool? Imagine the acute anxiety you experienced in those moments multiplied and extended into chronic stress lasting for days, weeks, months. The bottom line is this US policy authorized the kidnapping and traumatization of children as young as 9 months. The policy of this administration has led to children being caged like animals. The policy has led to their parents feeling for a fleeting moment that they have finally reached a safe haven only to have their children torn away from them and to be terrorized and criminalized by the place they thought would save them. This is shameful, and criminal. And a majority of Republicans, formerly the party of “family values”, support this abusive, inhumane, unconscionable policy. Rather than putting “America First”, these sorts of actions place us dead last on the world stage. Proponents of the zero tolerance policy, trolling discussion boards across the internet, say that the political opposition want “open borders” and want violent crime to rise unchecked in our country. Such arguments are mendacious and embarrassingly unsophisticated. Further, a cursory examination of history reveals ugly precedents (CNN, June 2018) for the zero tolerance policy. Examples include internment camps for the Japanese in the 1940s, and residential schools for Native Americans where their families, language, and culture were systematically eradicated. The US government has been cruel, explicitly racist, and genocidal before, and it can happen again now—if we let it happen. I want to believe that this is not who we are. I really want to believe that we can do better than this. Through an insistence on compassion and decency, and a respect for international law, our values and policies can shine again. But protestation, political organization, voter registration, and actual voting may be required before that can happen.


Cardoso, J.B. (In press). Running to stand still: Trauma symptoms, coping strategies, and substance use behaviors in unaccompanied migrant youth.  Children and Youth Services Review.

Domonoske, C. & Gonzales, R. (2018). What we know: Family separation and 'zero tolerance' at the border. Retrieved at