Here’s Why America’s New Immigration Policy Is Actually Medically Dangerous

You’d be hard-pressed to find a hotter topic than immigration in America right now. Since Jeff Sessions announced the new “zero tolerance” policy in April 2018, nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their families, and some of them have been lost. The majority of Americans agree that this is unacceptable, but we’re having a hard time agreeing on why it’s happening and what we should do about it.

No matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on or how you feel about immigration and amnesty in our country, it’s clear that separating young children from their parents in this way is not the best way to handle the situation. But the fact is, taking children away from their parents at the border is more than just immoral. It’s unhealthy. And in some cases, it’s medically dangerous.

What separation from their parents does to children is heartbreaking

Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border

Taking a child into custody is incredibly detrimental to their health. | John Moore/Getty Images

Charles Nelson is a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School who has studied the neurological damage from child-parent separation — and it isn’t pleasant. In fact, it often brings him to tears. Here are a few things that happen to children when they’re torn away from their parents, according to Nelson:

  • Their heart rate goes up.
  • Their body releases a flood of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
  • They sometimes self-soothe by rocking uncontrollably and resort to hitting their heads against walls to express their frustration.
  • The stress starts killing off dendrites, the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages.
  • Eventually, stress can start killing off neurons and cause long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.

And according to Nelson and dozens of researchers who back him up, this is just the tip of the iceberg. What is most alarming is the duration of the damage. Unlike other parts of the body, most cells in the brain cannot renew or repair themselves. So this “temporary” separation from their parents is likely causing these innocent children — who did absolutely nothing wrong — permanent damage.

The psychological damage is real

When children are born, they emotionally attach to their caregivers, Lisa Fortuna, medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, told the Washington Post. That’s why skin-to-skin contact for newborns and parents or guardians is highly encouraged — it’s critical for their development. Children develop their sense of safety from this early bonding.

Without this special bonding, parts of the brain that process attachment and fear develop differently. Children can develop PTSD later in life, and the areas of the brain that sort things into categories (dangerous or not) don’t work like they’re supposed to.

Separating a breastfeeding infant from their mother is especially dangerous

Recently, CNN reported a case of an undocumented migrant from Honduras whose daughter was taken away by immigration agents while she was breastfeeding her. When the mother attempted to resist, she was handcuffed. Not only is it inhumane to tear away an infant who is trying to get the nourishment she needs to survive, it’s particularly medically dangerous. And with 2,000 children being taken from their families, it’s safe to assume this wasn’t the only nursing baby to be affected.

Oxytocin, a feel-good hormone, is directly involved in breastfeeding. When a baby cries, oxytocin is released, and the mother produces milk. While the child is nursing, the mother’s brain’s posterior lobe produces oxytocin, which helps the two bond and acts as a pain reliever (nursing is sometimes physically painful). This is called the “oxytocin reflex.”

When a baby is removed from its mother during nursing, this process is interrupted. It can also be jarring — babies latch hard when they nurse, and that’s why you’re supposed to break the suction with a finger before you pull a baby off of a breast.

But the riskiest part is what it can do to a woman’s milk supply. Nursing mothers’ breasts are frequently making milk, and when they aren’t emptied, they will stop making it. In the meantime, the ducts could become plugged and cause mastitis.

Sometimes parents need to be present to protect their children

Children need their parents to keep them safe. | Loren Elliott/AFP/Getty Images

Unfortunately, not everyone can be trusted, including the people who are supposed to be protecting children. Recently, a Bexar County Sheriff’s Department deputy was arrested for sexually assaulting a four-year-old girl whose mother is an undocumented immigrant. When the girl’s mother realized what had happened, the sheriff allegedly threatened her with deportation if she spoke up.

While this horrible crime did not occur at the U.S. border, it does shed light on the fact that terrible people work all professions, including law enforcement. Separating children from their parents doesn’t mean the kids will be safe. In some cases, it could be putting them in harm’s way and leaving their parents powerless to help them.

How did we get here?

Immigration has long been a hot-button issue. | John Moore/Getty Images

Of course, this didn’t happen overnight, and some of these policies didn’t start with our current administration. Immigration is an issue that has needed reform for decades. However, the recent “no tolerance” policy directly led to an increase in child detainees separated from parents. And what is happening now is not only horrifying, it’s completely unsustainable.

Since this new policy has been enforced, at least one man has already committed suicide in his jail cell after having his three-year-old son ripped from his arms and being told he’d never see him again. And since it doesn’t get more psychologically damaging than that, it’s safe to say we have to put an end to this separation somehow.

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