Family Separation at the Border: What Social Workers Should KnowWhat is Family Separation?

Since April of this year, thousands of children have been separated from their parents at the Southern U.S. border. Horrifying images showed children being held in cages, while their parents detained without any information about their child’s whereabouts. This traumatic process of family separation was enacted due to a “zero-tolerance” immigration strategy being implemented by the Trump administration under the authority of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The zero-tolerance policy means that all migrants crossing the border without proper documentation are criminally prosecuted, even if they are seeking asylum, and/or traveling with children. Sessions has stated that separating children from parents would act as a deterrent for families considering migrating to the U.S. without documents, and Trump has stated that the law requires him to separate families, which is false information.

The law in question is a 1997 court settlement called the Flores settlement, and Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, both of which govern how migrant children are to be treated in the United States. National Public Radio reports that these laws “require that migrant children be placed in “the least restrictive environment” or sent to live with family members. They also limit how long families with children can be detained; courts have interpreted that limit as 20 days.”

Previous administrations did not separate children from their parents at the border, instead placing them in family detention centers where families could remain together while their cases were being processed. After 20 days, families were released together while being closely monitored through a program called Alternatives to Detention.

In late June, Trump reversed the family separation policy, replacing it with a family detention policy like the Obama administration utilized. However, this reversal came after thousands of children had already been separated from their parents, and hundreds of those parents were deported while their children remained in the U.S. The appropriate authorities, lawyers, advocates, and social workers are struggling to reunite children with their parents, as the new policy provides no clear guidance on how and when that should take place.

What Happens to the Migrant Children?

Children who were taken from their parents were first brought to Customs and Border Protection facilities before being transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Once in the custody of ORR, they are treated the same way as unaccompanied migrant children – they go to government facilities or short-term foster care while ORR attempts to find a family member to foster the child while her/his asylum case is being processed. However, as Vox reports: “the system for dealing with unaccompanied immigrant children was already overwhelmed, if not outright broken. ORR facilities were already 95 percent full as of June 7; 11,000 children are being held.”

At present, some children under the age of 5 have been reunited with their parents, but thousands of older children remain separated from their families. Further, hundreds of parents have been deported making reunification more difficult, and others have been deemed ineligible for reunification.

How does this Policy Impact Families?

The psychosocial and physical impacts of parent-child separation have been well-documented, and can have permanent negative consequences for children especially. In a 2011 report entitled “The Impact of Immigration Detention on Children and Families,” the National Association of Social Workers International Affairs Division states: “Children experience emotional trauma, safety concerns, economic instability, and diminished overall well-being.” The severe trauma of being separated from one’s parents at a vulnerable age can also lead to attachment disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, trust and abandonment issues, identity crises, and invasive traumatic memories. The physical effects have been described as catastrophic, and can be as severe as permanent brain damage.

Hospitals treating separated migrant children are seeing stark evidence of mental illness in the children, and secondary trauma in social workers, physicians, and other health professionals attending to their care. Recently released videos of separated migrant children reveal the anguish they feel in their own words.

How has the Social Work Profession Responded? 

Knowing the detrimental effects of family separation on innocent children, social workers and other health professionals have vehemently opposed the Trump administration’s policy of family separation. In the wake of these troubling events, many professional organizations and advocates led public outcry about this policy.

The National Association of Social Workers issued a statement calling the practice “malicious and unconscionable,” going on to state: “The decision to separate children from their parents as soon as the parent crosses the border into the United States is both harmful and inexcusable. More concretely, the policy directly imperils the health and safety of immigrants.” (Read the full statement here.)

The NASW also states that they are “pressing lawmakers to rescind this egregious action” and the NASW North Carolina Chapter has released a guidance document called “How Social Workers Can Help Children Being Separated from Parents at the U.S. Border” to inspire social workers to take action. It is recommended that social workers in any state become involved in direct advocacy on this issue by contacting their local representatives and donating to or getting involved with organizations working with migrant children and their families.


Family Separation at the Border: What Social Workers Should Know
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Family Separation at the Border: What Social Workers Should Know
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