Abstract: The Impact of Migration and Detention on Children from Central America (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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The Impact of Migration and Detention on Children from Central America

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Tatiana Londono, MSSW, Doctoral Student, University of Texas at Austin, TX
Lauren E. Gulbas, PhD
Luis Zayas, PhD, Dean and Robert Lee Sutherland Chair in Mental Health and Social Policy, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Background and Purpose: Refugee families from the Northern Triangle have been seeking asylum in the U.S. for many years. However, in 2014, the U.S. experienced the largest influx of families with children migrating through Mexico to the U.S. With close to 68,000 individuals apprehended at the U.S. border that year, the U.S. created detention centers to house these families. The detention of refugee families from the Northern Triangle continues to occur. However, little is known about the toll detention takes on these families, and more importantly, on the children. These families leave their home country due to violence and other hardships.

These experiences are compounded by in-transit trauma (e.g., violence in Mexico) and post-migration traumatic experiences (e.g., detention in the U.S.). In this presentation, we focus on the events and experiences faced by children from Central America in-transit and in detention.

Methods: We present qualitative data from a study on the psychosocial wellbeing of recently detained children. Interviews were conducted with both the caregiver and the child to inquire about the family’s journey and experiences in detention, as well as the child’s current wellbeing in the U.S. 38 interviews (19 children; 19 caregivers) were analyzed using inductive thematic analysis. We examined similarities and differences in experiences and perceptions related to migration, detention, life in the U.S., and the wellbeing of children throughout their journeys.

Results: Children’s narratives highlighted detention, violence, extortion, and other traumatic experiences while traveling through Mexico. Most recalled the distress and uncertainty they felt due to fears that everything would go wrong and that they would never reach the U.S. For others, experiences in detention were more difficult. Across our sample, children described a hostile, cold environment, verbal abuse from the guards, and a lack of food and other basic necessities. Such experiences came as a brutal awakening: All children in our sample thought they had finally reached safety once taken by U.S. border patrol. Instead, they described being stripped of their belongings, and many mentioned being separated from their parents. Children reported ceaseless crying, not sleeping, nightmares, and thinking they were never going to be reunited with their family. As one child explained, “I would never wish that experience on anyone.” Once reunited with family after detention, children described feelings of hope and safety. Nevertheless, they continued to feel isolated and unsupported in their broader communities and expressed deeply missing their home countries.

Conclusions and Implications: Our findings highlight important multi-faceted emotional processes these children go through during and after migration. Children emphasized distress related to in-transit and detention experiences. In addition, while children felt relief from being safe with their family in the U.S., they also noted missing their life back in their home country. The uncertainty, fear, and apprehension throughout their journey and while in detention greatly impacted these children and will have repercussions for their current and future wellbeing. Social workers need to focus attention on the impact of these experiences while also highlighting the strengths that emerged when trying to survive.