On December 8, 2018, Jakelin Caal, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl, died from seizures and a temperature above 105 degrees Fahrenheit while housed within U.S. border control. Just months later, Felipe Alonzo, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy suffering from an upper-respiratory infection combined with influenza, also perished while under the watch of border agents amidst the refugee asylum process (Linton, 2018). These and several other child deaths occurring while children were under the supervision of U.S. border control agents have sparked outcry regarding the mistreatment of child immigrants.
Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan called the facilities these children were forced to live in “police stations built for single adults,” rather than appropriate housing for families and children and voiced that he was “very concerned about the conditions” (CBS Interactive, 2019, para. 46). However, despite public outcry regarding these two prominent cases, the Department of Homeland and Security found there to be no "misconduct or malfeasance” by immigration officers (Flores, 2020, para. 7). Unfortunately, these cases are not isolated events. In the 8 months preceding May 2019, a total of 6 immigrant children died while in or directly after being released from U.S. custody (Kates & Canales, 2019). To prevent such tragic events, it is important to understand the cause. Some point to the 2018 implementation of a “zero-tolerance” version of existing immigration policies, wherein parents are criminally charged as a means of separating them from their children (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2019; Thronson & Thronson, 2020). Indeed, under the new zero-tolerance policy, virtually all adults (including asylum seekers) entering the U.S. without authorization were criminally prosecuted, which in turn triggered the forced separation of approximately 3,000 children from their parents (Jordan, 2019).
Often absent from this discussion, however, is the issue of racial discrimination. The United States has a long history of immigration law and policy that is inherently racist, including early laws that explicitly restricted Chinese immigration and promoted the deportation of Chinese and Latino populations (for a review, see Thronson & Thronson, 2020). Although less overt today, the legacy of racism in U.S. immigration law and policy continues and is reflected by current policies that prioritize and facilitate immigration for Whites but that simultaneously create barriers and block the path for immigrants of color (Thronson & Thronson, 2020). Some present-day policies explicitly target people of color, including the 2017 Executive Order banning entry of Muslims to the U.S. Other present-day immigration policies that appear “facially neutral” regarding race nonetheless disproportionately negatively impact immigrants of color, including the historically low cap placed on asylum-seekers and the shift toward criminally prosecuting unauthorized immigrants.
These policies have profoundly negative psychological effects on children and families of color (Chaudry et al., 2010, Thronson & Thronson, 2020; see also APA’s Division 27 Policy Statement, Society for Community Research and Action, 2018). Immigrant children separated from their parents experience trouble sleeping and eating, excessive crying, disrupted attachments, and aggression or withdrawn behavior among older children (Chaudry et al., 2010). Immigrant children separated from parents are also at increased risk for developing clinical depression, anxiety, and substance abuse (Capps et al., 2015), as well as poor physical health and poor intellectual development (American Immigrant Council, 2018).
Although eliminating racial bias within U.S. immigration law and policy is no easy task, it is vital work and is necessary to ensure the protection of immigrant children and families (Thronson & Thronson, 2020). Concrete steps forward include the removal of per-country caps on immigration, which would facilitate familial reunification for millions of children. Another critical step would be a zero-tolerance policy for immigrant child detention and familial separation (Thronson & Thronson, 2020). Thronson and Thronson (2020) stated: “When the well-being of children is weakened as a tool to leverage adult behavior, we have plainly lost our way” (p. 222). Racism within U.S. law and policy has insidious consequences, trickling down to the most vulnerable—children. We call on psychologists to conduct research exploring the role of race and racism as it pertains to experiences, outcomes, and the mental health and well-being of immigrant children and families (see also Stevenson, Bottoms, and Burke, 2020). Importantly, we also call on psychologists to become advocates for change, drawing upon their research to promote policy and reforms that improve the lives of immigrant children and families of color.
Interested readers will find further relevant information published in Margaret C. Stevenson, Bette L. Bottoms, and Kelly C. Burke’s 2020 Oxford University Press edited book, The Legacy of Racism for Children: Psychology, Law, and Public Policy, which explores the challenges that racial minority children face due to racism within U.S. law and public policy, from early life experiences to adolescence and teenage years, and offers recommendations for more informed policy and lawmaking. The book can be purchased from Amazon or Oxford University Press directly.
Alec McAlister is a rising sophomore at the University of Evansville. He is majoring in psychology with minors in sport psychology, business, Spanish, and data and statistics analysis.
Kate Wilhite is a rising junior at the University of Evansville. She plans to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and attend graduate school to pursue a PhD in social psychology.
Margaret C. Stevenson is an associate professor at Kenyon College. She publishes research on perceptions of vulnerable individuals, including children and minorities, who enter the legal system. She has published over 30 peer-reviewed articles, chapters, including a 2020 Oxford University Press edited volume, “The Legacy of Racism for Children: Psychology, Law, and Public Policy.” Stevenson is currently president-elect of APA Division 37’s Section on Child Maltreatment.
American Immigration Council. (n.d.). https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/publications/special-report.
CBS Interactive (2019, May 19). Transcript: Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan on "Face the Nation," CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-acting-homeland-security-secretary-kevin-mcaleenan-on-face-the-nation-may-19-2019/.
Capps, R., Koball, H., Campetella, A., Perreira, K., Hooker, S., & Pedroza, J. M. (2015). Implications of immigration enforcement activities for the well-being of children in immigrant families. Washington, DC: Urban Institute and Migration Policy Institute.
Chaudry, A., Capps, R., Pedroza, J. M., Castaneda, R. M., Santos, R., & Scott, M. M. (2010). Facing our future: Children in the aftermath of immigration enforcement. PsycEXTRA Dataset. https://doi.org/10.1037/e726272011-001
The Department of Homeland Security’s Family Separation Policy: Perspectives from the Border.(n.d.). https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-116hhrg36397/html/CHRG-116hhrg36397.htm
Flores, A. (2020, April 16). A Guatemalan boy who died in US custody told his father "I'm going to die." BuzzFeed News. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/adolfoflores/guatemalan-immigrant-boy-death-border-patrol-report.
Jordan, M. (2019, January 17). Family separation may have hit thousands more migrant children than reported. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/17/us/family-separation-trump-administration-migrants.html.
Kates, G., & Canales, A. (2019, May 23). A 10-year-old migrant girl died last year in government care, officials acknowledge. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/migrant-children-death-a-10-year-old-migrant-girl-died-last-year-in-government-care-officials-acknowledge-exclusive/.
Linton, C. (2018, December 17). New details about 7-year-old migrant girl's death in custody. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/jakelin-caal-death-el-paso-border-patrol-migrant-new-details-today-2018-12-15/
Stevenson, M. C., Bottoms, B. L., & Burke, K. C. (2020). The Legacy of Racism for Children: Psychology, Law, and Public Policy. Oxford University Press.
Thronson, V. T. & Thronson, D. B. (2020). Child immigration: Barriers Predicated on National Origin and Racial Identity. In M. C. Stevenson, B. L. Bottoms, & K. C. Burke (Eds.), The Legacy of Racism for Children: Psychology, Law, and Public Policy. Oxford University Press.