Since family separations at the US southern border peaked in 2018 because of the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy, we are learning more about the long-standing effects of this traumatic experience on the psychological and biological wellbeing of affected children and their families. In recent testimony to Congress, the Director of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, Dr. Jack Shonkoff, presented scientific evidence showing that sudden and prolonged separation of a child from their parent does not only generate visible signs of distress in the child, but also triggers an invisible and yet powerful dysregulation and strain on the child’s brain and body. Depriving a child from the nurturance and comfort of a capable and loving parent in the face of these threats only heightens the dysregulation in their psychological and biological systems. Consistent with work on family separation due to institutional care and abuse, even when reunited, a child’s subsequent adjustment is altered by the insecurity experienced during the separation and the disrupted attachment relationship.
Additionally, family separations at the border have a collective effect on other segments of society. Children of immigrant parents who already live in the United States watch images of separated children in cages at the southern border and wonder if they too could become a victim to this dehumanizing practice. Fear of family separation is so prevalent among children of immigrant families that elevated expressions of fear and concern, hypervigilance, and sudden bouts of crying have been documented. This type of dysregulation in the form of high alert and insecurity, what some scholars have termed “violence of uncertainty,” has been associated with pre-traumatic stress disorder — the new PTSD — that has long-term consequences on wellbeing and health.
Yet, if the psychological and biological response to the trauma of family separations was sudden and palpable for children and immigrant parents who were separated or who fear separation, the effect for the rest of society is more insidious. One cannot watch a distraught parent being separated from their crying four-year-old without realizing that the institution and value of the family has been broken. Surely, many Americans felt troubled watching such scenes on their television. Others may have felt detached from the plight of separated families, and others yet may have even justified and applauded the practice of family separations.
The varied reactions of repudiation, numbing, and lack of concern are common in collective trauma, a phenomenon that occurs after witnessing a stressful event in society, such as a natural or person-made disaster. But it is in politically-inflicted events, such as the policy of family separations at the southern border, that many individuals most risk becoming complacent and even complicit. Some members of society argue that although these events were counter to their core values, they have no agency in resisting long-standing structural forces of exclusion, including immigration policy. Others dismiss the significance of family separations at the southern border because they have learned to cope by numbing their reactivity to what seems like constant assaults on immigrants coming from the current administration. Still others justify the events, even if counter to the social fabric of family preservation, because they have bought into dehumanizing messages about immigrants.
Regardless of our political persuasion and beliefs about immigration, family separations at the southern border should have been impactful not only because they affected nearly 3,000 families, but also because almost half of the children separated from a parent were under the age of 10. Notably, the event overturned any assumptions that the world is a safe, stable, and nurturing place for children and families. But we know from collective trauma scholars, such as Jack Saul, that when notions of family are no longer safeguarded, social trust is shaken and the predictability of everyday life is undermined.
What then can society do to heal collectively when it has been hurt collectively? First, we need to ask ourselves what we as a nation have lost as a result of these tragic forced family separations. We need to ask how we have helped construct policies and practices that disproportionately affect the displaced, poor, and oppressed. We ought to take personal responsibility for our nation and what it does, good or bad. Collective healing can happen when we rise up in protest and demand an immediate end to family separations.
And for those of us Americans who are horrified by the collective trauma of family separations at the southern border but do not know how to protect these families, we should support civil rights organizations, like the ACLU, who defend the rights of immigrant families, pressure politicians who support damaging policies, and restore trust by committing to restitution to these families. Restitution must be at the personal level in how we think, talk about, and treat immigrants, but also at the social and policy level, in the form of immigration reform and compensation. Collectively we can heal, become resilient, and hopefully prevent this type of assault on children, families, and our values from happening again.