From the shores of Turkey, to an ambulance in Aleppo, to the Arizona desert, comes photographic evidence of the toll that violence takes on children. Millions—yes, millions—of children worldwide need protection. There are at least 50 million children displaced worldwide. The conflict in Syria alone has displaced more than 2 million children. Thousands of children continue to flee violence in Central America, often sent across the U.S. border alone by parents desperate to put them beyond the reach of gangs.
A recent report by Child Trends estimates that more than 127,000 foreign children will enter the U.S. by the end of 2016, up from about 90,000 in 2015. Each of these children has a legal designation. That designation—not their physical or psychological needs, or even the mere fact that they are children—determines the level of support and protection they receive under U.S. law.
About 37,500 are designated as refugees or asylees. After 5 years, they’re eligible for citizenship. The federal government establishes annual limits on the number of refugees who can enter from each region of the world, based on humanitarian concerns, geopolitical priorities, and national security considerations. In 2015, most adults and children admitted as refugees were from Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, and Bhutan.
Another 90,000 will be apprehended at the U.S. border. Whether alone or accompanied by a parent, these children face the possibility of detention. Detention facilities are reportedly poorly equipped to provide children (most of whom are under age 6) with the conditions they need to thrive. In fact, conditions in some facilities are so poor that they threaten children’s long-term development. Unaccompanied children also face the possibility of placement with a sponsor who may not be adequately screened or monitored, or who may be in the country illegally and subject to deportation.
In addition to refugees and children apprehended at the border, there are about 1 million more children already residing in the U.S. as unauthorized immigrants, yet another legal designation. They, and millions born here to undocumented immigrants, risk separation from parents or guardians who may be deported.
Looking just at refugees and children apprehended at the border, Child Trends’ researchers found that the overwhelming majority have experienced various forms of trauma. When trauma is not buffered by adults, it can result in toxic stress, threatening children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, and their long-term health.
Chief among the traumas experienced by children fleeing their homes for the U.S. are violence, loss of their homes and communities, and separation from family members. Immigrant children who have been separated from one or both parents may experience a sense of abandonment, detachment, and despair, particular at the beginning of the separation. Children who have lost parental ties also have higher levels of anxiety and food insecurity.
Childhood trauma can have lifelong consequences if it is not addressed. In the case of children who seek refuge here, there are things we can do to mitigate risks and promote positive outcomes:
We can keep families together and strong. Our immigration policies and practices should prioritize keeping children with their parents, except in the most extreme circumstances. Additionally, children are more likely to flourish when their parents are doing well, so public and private agencies serving refugee and immigrant children should take a two-generation approach whenever possible.
We can make schools safe and supportive places. Schools and child care centers can be safe havens for children. For unaccompanied immigrant children, feeling safe and connected at school contributes to their mental health. Positive peer relationships at school, high personal expectations, and parental support for education all promote immigrant children’s academic success.
We can build welcoming communities. Where do we begin when it comes to helping children overcome the effects of violence, terror, and persecution? Many communities have started by focusing on factors that are within their control. The Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative, for example, is a network of local governments and nonprofits nationwide seeking to create more inclusive communities. Members commit to adopting policies and practices that promote inclusion within their local government and community. Cincinnati’s Junior League, for example, created a program that links the 80 local refugee-focused organizations to share learning and coordinate services. To help people who don’t speak English during emergency situations, Buffalo police worked with immigrant and refugee communities to establish a system through which non-English speakers can access translators for more than 40 languages.
We can address the effects of trauma. Trauma-informed care is a research-based approach to serving children that acknowledges the impact of trauma, recognizes the signs, responds with interventions based on knowledge about trauma, and seeks to avoid re-traumatization. Professionals who come into contact with refugee and other immigrant children, including law enforcement personnel, should be trained in the tenets of trauma-informed care and how to apply them in their work.
Strong families, safe schools, welcoming communities, trauma-informed care—these principles apply to a wide range policies and public systems that serve children, not just immigration policy. Admittedly, when it comes to education, child care, foster care, and juvenile justice, there’s still much work to be done to put these principles fully into action. But these shortcomings don’t absolve us of the responsibility to protect and nurture all children, whether they are newly arrived or have roots in this country that go back many generations.
We have always been a nation of immigrants. As we build on this legacy, let’s be sure we’re building a more perfect union for all children within our borders.
Carol Emig, President