The Irrevocable Harm of Indefinite Detention of Immigrant and Refugee Children  

This post originally posted by Save the Children Action Network.
Written by Megan McKenna, Senior Director of Communications and Community Engagement at KIND

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) provides legal support services to unaccompanied and separated children, working to ensure that no child appears in immigration court without high quality legal representation. Earlier this summer, Save the Children initiated a partnership with KIND to support their critical work serving children and families at the U.S.-Mexico border.  

harm of indefinite detention on immigrant refugee children

“Please don’t forget about us.”
-Unaccompanied child held in custody in California

The prolonged and indefinite detention of immigrant and refugee children in detention facilities – which the Trump Administration is proposing in new regulations – is without question an attack on the core values of the United States and will fundamentally change the way the U.S. treats vulnerable children.

The detention of children – regardless of the conditions – harms them in the short and long-term in profound ways. Studies have found that immigrant children held in detention are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, development delays, and attention deficit disorder. How deeply children are affected and the long-term impact depends on a variety of factors such as the age of the child, the trauma the child experienced previously, how long the child was held and under what conditions, and the child’s situation in relation to the child’s parent or caregiver.

In the best of circumstances, immigrant and refugee children have a difficult time understanding even the basics of the U.S. immigration system as they are new to the United States and know little to nothing about U.S. systems, law, or processes. They most likely do not speak English. They are scared of people in uniform, terrified that they will be sent back to the very harm they fled and carry a tremendous amount of uncertainty for their future.  

As a KIND beneficiary in Los Angeles said, “I was all alone. I was scared and I didn’t know what would happen to me. I didn’t understand the guards and that made them angry.”

Prolonged detention compounds any trauma immigrant and refugee children suffered in their home country that caused them to flee, or on the life-threatening journey to the United States. Most KIND clients have been traumatized in some way, many as a result of gang violence, including sexual and gender-based violence in their home country. These root causes of migration and the deeply personal emotional scarring they cause can become secondary to the damaging emotional and psychological impact of prolonged detention, thus impairing a child’s ability to make a case for U.S. protection.

Detention of children is unnecessary. Alternatives to detention have been used in the past and been very successful.

The findings of two doctors within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which has investigated DHS facilities, perhaps say it best. They wrote in a July 2018 letter to Congress, “In our professional opinion, there is no amount of programming that can ameliorate the harms created by the very act of confining children to detention centers. Detention of innocent children should never occur in a civilized society, especially if there are less restrictive options, because the risk of harm to children simply cannot be justified.”

Or, as a girl described during her time in detention, “[The officer] told me to stop crying….I tried, but I couldn’t stop.”

To learn more about how Save the Children is providing direct assistance to migrant children and their families, visit our website.

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