How Trauma Shapes the Lives of Refugee and Immigrant Children in the United States

New report sheds light on the 127,000 children entering the country in 2016

Bethesda, Md.—Child Trends estimates that more than 127,000 children will come to the United States from abroad in 2016, as immigrants or refugees. While these children have the potential to make vital contributions to our communities, many have faced or will face trauma that, without intervention, can have lifelong negative impacts.

A new Child Trends report, Moving Beyond Trauma: Child Migrants and Refugees in the United States, projects that in 2016, about 37,500 children will be designated as refugees or asylees, with another 90,000 children entering the country as unauthorized immigrants, with or without a parent.

“While these children come to the United States from all regions of the world, they have most likely lived through similar traumatic experiences, through separation from family members or exposure to violence, or both,” said David Murphey, the report author and a senior research scientist at Child Trends. “Without adequate supports, these children may struggle in school and later in life.”

Children who arrive as refugees have favored status for social services and supports, and will be eligible for citizenship after 5 years. Children who are apprehended at the border, in contrast, face possible detention and a chain of custody arrangements. And, an estimated 1 million children not apprehended at the border are living in the United States as unauthorized immigrants. The report notes that these children are eligible for few support services, and most have no legal representation.

What do these children face?

Trauma, which can result in what researchers call “toxic stress”—or stress that is severe or chronic, and is not buffered by adult support—can impair children’s cognitive, social, and emotional skills, and contribute to risk for disease and early death.

In addition to trauma experienced before and during their journey to the United States, the report notes these children face a number of continued risks to their well-being:

  • They may experience discrimination and bullying, problems in school, and challenges associated with their own or family members’ adaptation to life in the United States.
  • Conditions in detention centers may contribute to long-term impairments in children’s development.
  • Unaccompanied children may be released to sponsors who are not adequately screened or monitored; they may be subjected to further maltreatment and exploitation.
  • Children may be separated from their parents, either before or in the course of their journey. Studies show that children who have been separated from their parents have higher levels of anxiety and food insecurity.

How can we mitigate trauma and its long-term cost for these children?

The experience of trauma shared among immigrant and refugee children implies that a common set of supports may be helpful to them, regardless of their legal designation. But the current system creates inequities in accessing a range of services and supports, where child refugees are eligible for a great many resources that are ruled out for unauthorized child immigrants.

Legal eligibility is no guarantee of services, though. There are reports that many international immigrant children are denied, or otherwise fail to receive, services they may be eligible for after arriving in the United States.

To reduce the potential for continuing trauma, and to improve children’s chances for successful integration, Child Trends recommends the following:

  • All children should be accorded physical safety and due process, including legal representation during asylum processing and removal hearings.
  • Law enforcement personnel and Border Patrol officers should have specific training in working with child victims of trafficking.
  • Parents and children should not be separated through legal action, except in the most extreme circumstances.
  • Communities should receive adequate resources to help them prepare for newcomer children.

Child Trends’ work on this report was funded by The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children at all stages of development. Its mission is to improve the lives and prospects of children and youth by conducting high-quality research and sharing the resulting knowledge with practitioners and policymakers. childtrends.org

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