Our Traumatic History: This Is Not the First Time America Has Separated Families

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Courtesy of ABC

Under the “zero tolerance” policy set under the current administration, anyone who enters the country illegally— no matter if they’re eligible for refugee status or asylum —will be deported. With this new policy, over two thousand children ranging from newborns to adolescents have been separated from their parents. Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have seen this. History tends to repeat itself, and not for the better.

The history of separating families goes all the way back to the slave trade. Slaves were mercilessly forced apart from their parents, spouses, children, and other loved ones. The slave trade lasted over a century and involved millions of slaves, but still, this was not the only occurrence of families being ripped apart. During the mid 1800s, Native Americans were forced to endure the Trail of Tears (a dangerous and deadly journey in which thousands of Natives were forced further West), with many losing their family members in this journey. Hundreds of thousands of young Native Americans were also forced into boarding schools, where they were forced to assimilate Euro-American culture and faced verbal and emotional abuse.

Most recently, during the 1940s, countless Japanese families were separated and forced into different internment camps (Executive Order 9066) across the country until the end of World War II. Many historians note that the effects of this trauma have transcended generations, as those who survived the internment camps experienced stressful adulthoods and were more likely to sink into depression and resort to violence. Children of internment camp survivors were also more vulnerable to such behavior as a result of the instability of their childhood.  

Throughout history, family separation has proven to be damaging not only to children, but to all members involved. In 2018, we see this happening again. Many children in immigrant shelters have reported physical, mental and emotional abuse, and some even report the use of psychotic drugs on children as young as five. One recent case that came to light was in an immigrant shelter in Arizona, where teens claimed that they were molested and sexually abused by two of the shelter facility employees. As midterm elections continue throughout the nation and immigration remains one of the most controversial issues, these cases should be more than cautionary, remote stories. These are children’s lives being utterly ruined and underserved, and we must support the politicians who follow our beliefs and will push for reform.

In the news, there have been countless heartbreaking accounts of kids’ traumatizing experiences in immigrant shelters across the nation. Diego, a young boy at a shelter in Chicago, remembers the fear instilled in punishments; his worst experience was seeing a five-year-old detainee injected with an unknown substance for acting out in school and falling asleep. The same boy was also forcibly dragged by two male employees when he fiddled in the field for too long. Diego was quarantined for a whole day when he got a virus, having no contact with other people and his only source of entertainment being two-player board games. At one point, Diego could not even recognize his mother’s voice on the phone as a result of his traumatizing confinement.

Sandy, a young girl in a different immigrant shelter, had an experience similar to Diego’s. Although reunited with her mother, she still fears being separated and going back to the facility she was held in. Sandy recounts her experiences for the first time with an interviewer, talking about the language barriers that were a problem in many shelters, where kids sometimes didn’t even speak Spanish and could only speak in their native tongue distinct to a certain region in Latin America. Sandy also talks about how the facility workers intimidated the children into behaving by saying they would stay there until they turned eighteen and warning that they would never see their parents again if they didn’t behave. In addition, Sandy recalls the strict gender separation policy, saying they weren’t allowed to hug each other and were only saw people of the opposite sex during recess. For Sandy and her mother, their future remains uncertain, but for now they live with a host family in Boston.

Sandy and Diego’s stories are only two of the thousands of accounts of family separation that have surfaced throughout history. These children faced not only separation from their family, from everyone they know, but also loneliness, alienation, and trauma after their time in a shelter/detention center. Their experience should tell us one thing: this is more than a media story. Although many have been reunited with their parents, many more still await reconciliation.

Despite the government’s attempts to reunite families at the border, the government has yet to address the abhorrent conditions of immigration shelters. Recently, a toddler named Mariee Juarez died from pneumonia, after contracting the disease at the immigration shelter she was detained at and receiving little to no treatment. Mariee’s respiratory disease was treatable, but instead of receiving basic care from the immigration shelter she was detained at, she died on May 10th before she even reached her second birthday. To say this is atrocious doesn’t convey even half of the sadness, anger, and indignation in this incident. Ultimately, the inadequate medical care at this immigrant shelter cost Mariee her life. Events like these shouldn’t occur, and they wouldn’t if the U.S. stopped separating families.

Although a federal judge has already ruled that all these children must be reunited with their respective families, over five hundred still have yet to be returned to their parents, three hundred seventy-seven of whom have family that has been deported. Separating kids from their families is not something we can or should take lightly. In fact, many children who have been detained in immigrant shelters do not even trust their parents upon reconciliation and refuse to be hugged or touched by them, showing the lasting trauma that each family will suffer. Children like Mariee have had their futures cut short or derailed due inadequate medical care, which all of us should have the right to, citizen or not. Kids deserve to be kids and not have their childhood unjustly taken from them. This is an issue nowhere near finished and one all of us should be furious about.


-Diana Sanchez