The Trump administration is knowingly putting vulnerable children in harm’s way. Disturbing reports from the border are revealing the human consequences of the administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forces children and families seeking asylum in the United States to wait for their court hearings in Mexican border towns — some of the most dangerous places on earth.
Horrific stories of the dangers children face in these towns have surfaced in the last month. A recent New York Times story described a 3-year-old boy who witnessed his father being beaten by kidnappers holding them ransom, and another 3-year-old boy forced to watch as multiple attackers repeatedly raped his mother. These are not rare, isolated incidents: Since January, according to a Dec. 5 Human Rights First report, there have been at least 636 documented cases of violent attacks, including kidnapping and rape, against migrants sent back to Mexico by the U.S. government — and 293 of the attacks were in November alone.
As psychiatrists, we know this kind of trauma carries profound consequences for these children and we cannot stand idly by while the Trump administration forces the most vulnerable among us into unthinkable situations. The children whom the Trump administration is sending back to unspeakable violence in Mexican border towns are at risk for serious traumatic reactions and dysfunction that could impact them for the rest of their lives.
Trauma and regression at the border
Decades of research have catalogued the neurobiological and psychological consequences of trauma on children’s brains. It is estimated that 1.8 million synapses are formed on average per second in infants and toddlers. This stage of life is a critical time of development for children, during which the foundation for emotional and behavioral regulation and learning is built.
Immigration lawyers: We saw what’s happening at the US-Mexico border. It’s a tragic farce.
Exposing these children to brutal attacks on their family members, while they are living in stressful and traumatizing shelter environments, makes them prone to regress to earlier developmental stages and potentially lose bladder control, stop speaking, cry uncontrollably and even lose touch with reality. And the consequences of such trauma will continue into adulthood when they will be more likely to become angry, anxious, aggressive and dysfunctional adults.
Indeed, trauma during this developmental stage essentially causes brain damage and results in a two-fold increase in the risk of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as adults. Furthermore, as adults, these children are more likely to experience poor physical health and substance dependence and are more likely to be unemployed and incarcerated.
Ending policy would help children heal
But there is hope for these children if the Trump administration changes course. We know that the key to healing traumatized children is a safe and stable living environment and the support of a caring parent or adult. Ending the “Remain in Mexico” policy and allowing children and families seeking asylum to wait in the United States for their court hearings would prevent any more harm as a result of U.S. government policy and offer these children a chance at healing. If we remember our humanity, we may be able to undo some of the damage done.
But as long as the Trump administration continues to send asylum seekers back to dangerous border cities in Mexico and other unstable locations, children’s lives are at risk. As physicians and human beings, we are compelled to speak up and demand that our government stops forcing children and families into danger that will haunt them, and us, for the rest of their lives.
While some might blame the parents of these children for trying to bring them to the United States in the first place, the reality is that most of these families are facing dire circumstances in their home countries — and that no parent risks a journey this dangerous unless they are running from a situation that is even more dangerous.
As these children and parents arrive at our doorstep seeking asylum, as is their legal right, it is wrong for this administration to knowingly place them in dangerous environments when safe alternatives exist and their presence in the United States has no negative impact on our society. It is our duty to protect them.
Dr. Steven Berkowitz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, is a professor of psychiatry and the director of the Stress, Trauma, Adversity Research and Treatment Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Dr. Alisa R. Gutman is an adult psychiatrist and a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and medical director of the Philadelphia Human Rights Clinic, which serves asylum seekers. The views expressed here are solely their own.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump’s ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy is traumatizing kids: Psychiatrists