U.S. immigration policy: What harms will persist?


The Trump policy of separating children and teenagers from their parents after crossing the U.S. border has been called un-American, immoral, cruel, and inhumane. The policy thankfully has been reversed or at least subject to delay. However, as I write today, 2,300 children and their parents are separated, not in contact, lost to each other, and with no clear plan on reunification. The ultimate outcome of immigration legislation and policy is unknown and mired in partisan politics. The policy hopefully has changed permanently, but what are the harms that will persist?

Photo provided by Custom and Border Protection to reporter on tour of detention facility in McAllen, Texas. Reporters were not allowed to take their own photos U.S. Customs and Border Control

1. Many if not all of the 2,300 children taken from their parents to institutional settings will have suffered acute anxiety and despair. Following data gathered by René Spitz and John Bowlby 80 years ago, children forced to separate from their parents for long hospitalizations with limited visitation went through phases of protest, despair, and if repeated or lengthy separations, “detachment” that impaired their ability to form relationships.1

2. Many of these children have suffered traumas in their country of origin and through the journey to the U.S. border. Some of this traumatic experience was mitigated by being in the presence of their parent(s). Very likely some children have psychiatric and physical disorders that will add to the level of risk. The current trauma, forcible separation by armed guards into restrictive facilities, will compound or intensify the previous traumas without the benefit of parental support.

3. Will the harms persist? Likely this level of trauma has such a strong neurologic and psychological impact that many of the children will suffer from nightmares, depression, and persistent anxiety about trusting the safety of their setting. These harms will impact their health, their ability to learn, their relationships, and may increase the risk of self-medication through use of substances.2

4. The parents who are jailed, have had their children removed, and do not know where they are and aren’t able to talk to them have suffered a massive trauma. We all have lost sight of a child for a minute or two in a store or on the beach. Our anxiety is immediate, and if the separation is longer, we may remember those frightening minutes for the rest of our lives. How many immigrant parents will develop depression and posttraumatic stress disorder?

5. Guards were ordered to be the front-line implementers of the policy and must have been torn between their sworn duty and their inner knowledge that what they are doing is wrong. Hearing the children crying and calling for their parents must have elicited painful feelings of what it would have been like to have their own children taken away with no way to reach them or knowing where they were taken. Implementing this policy dehumanized them, and I believe made them feel guilty or unworthy.

6. Millions of immigrants – whether lawful, dreamers, or undocumented – must have felt fearful, powerless, and angry about this policy. Millions of their children must have been worried and lost a little bit of faith in their parents and in the United States.

7. Did U.S. citizens, many from immigrant roots, wonder if this could happen to them? How many children felt a little less secure? Was the anxiety higher for descendants of the U.S. citizens remembering the trauma of the World War II Japanese internment camps? Other descendants (like me) will remember quite vividly their mother’s story of being on the St. Louis steam ship and being turned away from the United States to face a high likelihood of death in Nazi Germany. A bit of fear will replace trust in and loyalty to the United States.

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek, professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek

We all are protected by a society or culture where the ends never justify immoral means. The separation of children from parents whether politically motivated or as a punishment for frightened immigrants is a dubious end that cannot justify immoral means. Harm has and continues to be done, some transient, some permanent. I believe we all feel a little less safe. Hopefully the reaction to President Trump’s policy, bipartisan and religious, will serve to remind us of our best selves and offer some protection from further harms.

Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email him at


1. Dev Psychol. 1992;28:759-75.


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