Since 2014 there has been a growing number of asylum-seeking families who are apprehended at the U.S. border. Between 2013 and 2017, over 200,000 individuals who were migrating as part of a family unit were apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). As the number of family apprehensions has increased, so has the reported number of family units that have been forcibly separated after CBP takes them into custody—including those with children under the age of five. Some research has begun to document the process by which CBP separates families into different holding cells and, eventually, long-term detention centers. Concern for the mental health and physical well-being of children in these facilities is particularly high, but relatively little is known about their well-being post-release. Our research contributes to this field by examining the impact of family separation at the border on the lived experience of young immigrant children, focusing specifically on how the institutions tasked with caring for these children have developed programs and services to address the unique needs that they present.
We partnered with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) to secure access to three facilities that serve immigrant children who have been forcibly separated from their parents by CBP. Our paper relies on two unique sources of data. First, we use LIRS administrative data to conduct descriptive analyses of children in these facilities, including those who have been forcibly separated from caregivers. Of those who have been forcibly separated (n=34), the majority are from Guatemala (68%) and, while they range in age from 3 – 16, 35% arrived before they turned five years old. We examine available indicators of child well-being, and chart these youths’ path from apprehension to facility placement. The second source of data comes from in-depth interviews that we conducted with staff at each of the three facilities (n=12). Interviews include questions about the perceived impact family separation has had on the children, and how the facilities have adjusted—or why they have not—in response to the children’s presenting needs.
Findings indicate the range of needs of immigrant children who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the border, as well as the programmatic challenges for the facilities that are charged with serving them. Key findings and implications concern the youngest children in custody. They are often minimally verbal and cannot communicate their historical experiences, answer intake and assessment questions, or articulate their needs clearly. They cannot be integrated into academic programming with older children and therefore require separate accommodations or stay-at-home foster families which are difficult to recruit. They also tend to endure longer lengths of stay relative to other children in custody.
Based on these findings—and trends we see more generally across children in these facilities—we provide recommendations for social work practitioners, researchers, and policymakers concerning how to navigate the tension between child welfare, family unity, and the evolving policies and practices within the U.S. immigration apparatus.