Living in Crisis: Latino Children Held Hostage

Written by: Mary Lou de Leon Siantz PhD RN FAAN
National Latino Children’s Institute
Member Board of Directors
Statement Adopted by NLCI Board of Directors

CHILDREN are mankind’s most precious resource and hope for its future. The current border crisis forces innocent immigrant children to endure separation from parents, institutionalization, and reunification in prisons during critical cognitive and developmental periods through no fault of their own. A process that ignores our fundamental values of justice, fairness, and equality negatively impacts their resilience, mental and physical health. It robs these children of the tools needed to build on their strengths, become productive citizens, and create healthy communities during their lifetime. Ultimately, we are depriving society of the future potential and contributions of its most vulnerable population, its children.

It is disgraceful that in today’s southwest border scenario, we are creating 21st Century orphanages as our Latino children are held hostage in warehouses, foster care, or prison settings. Many are located in undisclosed settings due to poorly conceived solutions to immigration policies that adversely influence immigrant children and parents, as they are placed with under prepared temporary and in some cases permanent caregivers. Expert consensus has established the negative consequences of stress in the first months and years of life through adolescence from traumatic early childhood experiences like the separation and loss that these border children endure. Institutionalization with underprepared caregivers and the disorganized reunification process in prisons that currently exists will continue to haunt their future.

Stress contributes to a child’s learning and development as they learn to cope with frustration, overcome obstacles and confront the challenges they experience on a daily basis. This level of stress is usually safe and manageable, especially when a child has the safety and security of their parents in a healthy home environment. For immigrant children separated at the border who suffer: 1) separation from their parent, 2) institutionalization that lacks the protective benefits of their parents or caregivers trained to understand how to provide such support, and 3) the unplanned reunification process in prisons, the stress these children experience reaches toxic levels. We now know that such stress can eventually cause permanent damage as the body responds with a series of chemical reactions that affect heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and other functions. When temporary, these responses help us to adapt and survive. When they happen too frequently or last too long they produce lifelong chronic disease. High levels of early toxic stress have been associated with impaired behavioral and emotional development as well as numerous health consequences later in life, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes.

Feelings of loss, grief, and sadness through separation at the border also trigger a variety of physical, emotional, and behavioral responses like changes in eating habits, crying, and fear. Some argue that it is the mourning and grief from the loss of one’s parent and family members that triggers such responses. Others claim that it is the secondary losses of routines, and the emotional security they provide that ultimately cause negative outcomes, especially with immigrant families. Nevertheless, we do know that these children are grieving without the support of caregivers trained to provide the psychological intervention needed to decrease the toxic stress of the institutional or foster settings that currently house them.

Research has established that the stress of losing one’s parent during critical developmental periods with placement in institutional care is devastating to both the child and the parent, as they are handed over to caregivers, who are not prepared to care for children in crisis. The reunification process also contributes additional and overlooked challenges for both children and parents through the current unplanned mechanisms that may or may not bring these children and parents together in a timely manner, despite court orders.

The reunification of children with traumatized parents in prison continues the nightmare with its own set of stressors, as children begin the process of recovery and re-enter the family unit. Children may withdraw from the parents once reunited. They may act out in a variety of ways. They have likely been placed under the care of workers that do not understand the power and dynamics of the child’s family relationships and are not prepared to support both parents and children in prison settings during the reunification.

Mary Lou de Leon SiantzMary Lou de Leon Siantz, NLCI Board of Directors, is a professor and founding director of the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science (CAMPOS). She is nationally recognized for her interdisciplinary efforts to prepare health and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals in leadership and policy, as well as internationally respected for her research in migrant population health.



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