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What is the price of separated immigrant families’ trauma?

Both Republicans and Biden say $450,000 payouts are too high.

Carlos Fuentes Maldonado, a Honduras immigrant seeking asylum, holds his daughter Mia, 1, after they were reunited in 2018, in San Antonio, Texas. Mia and her 4-year-old sister had been taken to a shelter in Arizona shortly after the family had tried to cross the Rio Grande about two months earlier.
Eric Gay/AP
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

President Joe Biden suggested this week that paying immigrant families separated by the Trump administration $450,000 in compensation per separated person — as the Department of Justice is reportedly currently discussing in settlement talks — is too much to ask the federal government. The White House has noted it hasn’t ruled out some form of payout altogether.

Some 5,600 families were intentionally separated in immigration detention under former President Donald Trump in 2017 and 2018 after they tried to cross the southern US border without authorization, and about 1,000 families have yet to be reunited. Children taken from their parents were placed in foster care, the homes of relatives in the US, and federal detention centers, while their parents were detained separately. About 940 claims have been filed so far that would potentially be part of the settlement.

For those families, the $450,000 figure reflects the price of dealing with what could be lifelong psychological and health consequences of the trauma of separation, as well as, in some cases of separated children, physical and sexual abuse they experienced while in foster care and in US custody. Many advocates question whether this amount is really sufficient given the depth of the families’ trauma — and how long-term its effects could be.

“There’s no amount of money, or anything really, that is ever going to make something like that okay,” said Conchita Cruz, co-executive director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, which has represented separated families and is part of the ongoing negotiations.

But to some US officials, $450,000 seems too high a price.

While eager to make amends for the family separation policy on the campaign trail, Biden said Wednesday that settlements of that size were “not going to happen” and admonished reporters for “sending that garbage out.” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre later clarified that Biden supports settling with separated families if it is less costly than continuing litigation, but not for the amount of $450,000. The DOJ has said that price is too steep as well.

Republicans have seized on the issue, seeking to weaponize it against Biden. Nearly a dozen Republican senators recently argued in a letter to the White House that a settlement “would financially reward aliens who broke our laws” and “encourage more lawlessness” at the southern border, where the Biden administration has continued to uphold hardline Trump-era enforcement policies, which facilitate the mass expulsions of migrants.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has ridiculed the idea.

But while Republicans — and Biden — have dismissed the efforts to secure what might seem like a very large settlement for separated families, it’s important to put that number in context. The federal government has compensated victims of its own policies before, including those subject to Japanese American internment during World War II, under which some 120,000 American citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry were sent to camps in the US following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces.

And advocates argue $450,000 is not an unreasonable amount given what separated families have endured, and will continue to suffer, as a result of their separation.

“There is robust evidence from pediatricians, mental health and public health experts that family separation causes significant trauma that can impact a child for years to come,” said Amy Fischer, Americas advocacy director at Amnesty International USA. “The trauma in this case was the point, explicitly used as a tactic by the US government to try and deter families from seeking safety in the United States. The US government then bears the responsibility to compensate families for this trauma that was caused.”

Separated families experienced intense trauma

Family separation carries long-term psychological and health impacts that might not manifest until years later, or worsen over time — outcomes that the US government predicted even before implementing the family separation policy.

Commander Jonathan White, who previously oversaw the government’s program providing care to unaccompanied immigrant children, told Congress that he repeatedly warned the officials who concocted the policy that it would likely have “significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.”

A September 2019 government watchdog report confirmed that immigrant children who entered government custody in 2018 frequently experienced “intense trauma” and that trauma was even more acute for those who were “unexpectedly separated from a parent.”

Each child reacts to family separation differently. But psychologists have observed three main kinds of effects: Disruptions to their social attachments, increases in their emotional vulnerability, and (in some cases) post-traumatic stress disorder, said Lauren Fasig Caldwell, director of the American Psychological Association’s children, youth, and families office.

Children may face difficulty establishing relationships, resulting in social isolation. They may show signs of anxiety and depression, aggression, and difficulty regulating their emotions or coping with stress. Stress can hinder memory, attention span, and an individual’s abilities to plan, make decisions, and process information.

Fasig Caldwell added those symptoms could be only short-term or persist in the long run — or not even manifest until a child enters their teen years or adulthood. All of them could significantly hinder a child’s later success in school and in the workplace. Suicidal ideation stemming from PTSD and bipolar disorder may also crop up later in life, as might high-risk and self-destructive behaviors.

Beyond those psychological effects, some children were also subjected to physical and sexual abuse while separated from their parents. For instance, one 6-year-old child was hit in his foster home while separated from his father for months.

And when Honduran immigrant Daniel Paz was separated from his 7-year-old daughter Angie in May 2018, she was sent to a detention facility for children, where he says an immigration officer sexually abused her and told her that if she told anyone, she would never see her parents again. Angie said she also saw the same officer sexually abuse two girls who were even younger than her.

“The Angie the U.S. government returned to me is not the same girl they took out of my arms in that detention center,” Paz wrote in Newsweek after their reunification.

Overall, these forms of abuse can have severe, long-term impacts on a child’s physical and mental health and later sexual adjustment, and may also erode their trust in adults to care for them.

Yeni Gonzalez, a Guatemalan mother who was separated from her three children at the US-Mexico border, is embraced by volunteer Janey Pearl, during a news conference in 2018, in New York.
Craig Ruttle/AP

Separated families should be compensated for the extensive trauma they faced

While the money won’t undo the harms caused by US government officials, it would begin to help separated families move forward and serve as a public statement that what happened to them was wrong.

Settlement negotiations are still ongoing, and it’s not clear what framework might be used to determine how much compensation each family would get. But Fischer said that, in devising such a framework, lawyers should consider the long-term social, emotional, and physical impacts on the child, the age of the child at the time of separation, as well as what might be sufficient for families to secure long-term care and recovery from the trauma.

There are also historical models for administering compensation to victims of US government policies that could guide that framework. In 1983, a high-profile class action lawsuit demanded that the US government pay $27.5 billion in damages to survivors of Japanese American internment or their descendants, to redress, among other things, their psychological distress. The suit argued that the internment program was not militarily necessary as the government had claimed, but rather was motivated by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

The case advanced through the appellate courts, including the Supreme Court, inspiring vigorous political debate before it was finally dismissed on a technicality. Though the litigation did not prevail, it galvanized political pressure to rectify past wrongs and ultimately led Ronald Reagan to sign the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, giving $20,000 in compensation to each survivor; around $46,000 in 2021 dollars.

There are other ways that the US government could help separated families, aside from compensating them.

Conchita Cruz said that there has been a push to get affected families free access to medical and mental health care and social services. That’s especially important given that many of them are noncitizens and might not be eligible for public health insurance programs, including Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Without insurance, continuous care often becomes prohibitively expensive. Though individuals who have been granted asylum are eligible for those programs, the process of obtaining asylum can take months or even years.

Lawyers have also been advocating for a more immediate legal pathway for separated families to remain in the US without fear of deportation, though it’s not clear whether Biden would support such a pathway.

Advocates believe that dismissing these potential solutions, as some Republicans have, is a way of trivializing the trauma of the separated families.

“The government can choose to defend instances of government officials abusing children in their custody or not,” Conchita Cruz said. “That’s really where we are.”