Steven Berkowitz and Alisa R. Gutman
The Trump administration knowingly puts vulnerable children at risk. Disturbing reports from the border reveal the human consequences of the administration”Stay in Mexicowhich forces children and families seeking asylum in the United States to wait for their hearings in Mexican border towns, among the most dangerous places in the world.
horror stories of dangers children face in these cities have surfaced over the past month. A recent New York Times story described a 3-year-old boy who watched his father be beaten by captors who held them for ransom, and another 3-year-old boy who was forced to watch multiple attackers repeatedly rape his mother. These are not rare isolated incidents: since January, according to a December 5 report by Human Rights First, there have been at least 636 documented cases of violent attacks, including kidnappings and rapes, against migrants returned to Mexico by the US government – and 293 of these attacks took place in November alone.
As psychiatrists, we know that this type of trauma has profound consequences for these children, and we cannot sit idly by while the Trump administration forces the most vulnerable among us into unthinkable situations. Children the Trump administration sends back to unspeakable violence in Mexican border towns are at risk of severe traumatic reactions and dysfunctions that could affect them for the rest of their lives.
Trauma and regression at the border
Decades of research have documented 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 period in children’s development, during which the foundations of emotional and behavioral regulation and learning are built.
Lawyers specializing in immigration law:We have seen what is happening at the US-Mexico border. It is a tragic farce.
Exposing these children to brutal attacks on family members, while living in stressful and traumatic shelter environments, makes them susceptible to regressing to earlier developmental stages and potentially losing bladder control, d stop talking, crying uncontrollably and even losing touch with reality. And the consequences of such trauma will carry over into adulthood when they are more likely to become angry, anxious, aggressive and dysfunctional adults.
Indeed, trauma at this stage of development essentially causes brain damage and leads to a doubling of the risk of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as adults. Moreover, in adulthood, these children are more likely to experience difficulties physical health and substance dependence and are more likely to be unemployed and incarcerated.
Ending politics would help children heal
But there is hope for these children if the Trump administration changes course. We know that the key to healing for traumatized children is a safe, stable living environment and the support of a caring parent or adult. Ending the “stay in Mexico” policy and allowing asylum-seeking children and families to wait in the United States for their court hearings would prevent further harm from U.S. government policy and provide these children with a chance of recovery. 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 towns in Mexico and other volatile places, children’s lives are at risk. As doctors and human beings, we are obligated to speak up and demand that our government stop putting children and families at risk, which 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 face dire circumstances in their home countries – and no parent is not risking such a dangerous trip unless they are fleeing an even more dangerous situation.
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 unsafe environments when there are safe alternatives and their presence in 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 professor of psychiatry and 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 clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and founder and medical director of Philadelphia Human Rights Clinic, which serves asylum seekers. The opinions expressed here are solely their own.