As bombs rained down on Britain’s cities in September 1939, heralding the beginning of World War II, a program to evacuate children to the countryside was swiftly put into motion. Known as “Operation Pied Piper,” the plan oversaw the separation of thousands of children from their parents, who were, in many cases, forced to remain in the cities to work. In 2011, the BBC wrote that to talk to those children today is to unearth “painful memories that have been deeply hidden for 60 years, exposing the trauma of separation and isolation and the tensions of fear and anger.”
When researchers at what would later became the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families studied the lasting impacts of those separations in the aftermath of WWII, they found that the children who had been separated from their parents experienced significantly more trauma than the children who had stayed in the cities to weather the bombings alongside their families in underground shelters, Mark Smaller, who served as president of American Psychoanalytic Association until June 2016, told Mic.
According to Smaller, the case is one of the first known research projects regarding the long-term impacts of traumatic separation — and one that modern researchers are using to caution against the damaging consequences of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“The foundation of psychoanalysis is research on the long-term impact of early childhood trauma, and this [immigration policy] is a dramatic example of that,” Smaller said. “Research and literature has shown that with these kinds of separations of young children from their parents, without some kind of therapeutic intervention, you can be pretty certain that that kind of separation will result in serious long-term trauma going forward.”
In April, the Trump White House rolled out a new “zero tolerance” approach to illegal immigration that requires all migrants found to have entered the country illegally to be prosecuted as criminals. While the adults found in violation of the law are, in most cases, carted off to federal prisons to await their day in court, their minor children are usually taken from them and surrendered to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services. In May, HHS reported that it had 10,773 migrant children in its custody — a 21% increase from the previous month.
The policy was recently condemned by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which on Tuesday released a statement expressing “deep concern,” over the practice of separating families, saying that it “amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child.”
The press release comes on the heels of a similar statement released by APsaA — for which Smaller currently serves as chair of the public advocacy department — that denounced the policy as “inhumane and harmful.”
“Forced separations, even briefly, can cause long-lasting trauma and lead to serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and PTSD,” the statement reads. “Taking children away from their caregivers will also interfere later with learning, social relationships and socioeconomic status.”
When it comes to the long-term psychological effects of forced separation, Smaller said that the science is clear and the medical community is united in its full-throated condemnation of the practice.
“In terms of childhood capacity to learn, to form long-term attachments with significant others, with peers... those kinds of relationships will be significantly impacted by this kind of early childhood trauma,” he said. “The literature shows that a child can literally get stuck in that stage, and it could interfere with a child’s capacity to learn, to form healthy attachments, and it can create difficulties in regulating certain kinds of behavior.”
And according to Smaller, the younger a child is, the more potentially catastrophic this kind of suffering can be to their emotional and psychological development.
“If a child is under the age of three or four, their capacity to sustain their connection with their parent is already developmentally in a fragile state,” he said. “Ask any parent with a child who’s on their way to their first day of kindergarten — the kinds of separation issues that can just come up under those very normal circumstances can be very challenging, so you can imagine it’s going to be much worse for a child who’s going to be separated from their parent for an undetermined amount of time.”
But in recent weeks, it’s become clear that separating migrant children from their parents is only part of the problem. In a Facebook Live video that has since gone viral, Sen. Jeff Merkley made the pilgrimage to a detention facility in Brownsville, Texas, which is run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. In a subsequent interview with CNN, Merkley described the conditions in another facility, the McAllen Border Patrol Processing Center, as draconian, with children being held in “big cages made out of fencing and then wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can’t climb out of them.”
After prominent liberals, including former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Barack Obama’s former speechwriter Jon Favreau, shared photos of the cage-like shelter conditions that were later revealed to have been taken in 2014, critics were quick to point out that migrants were housed in similarly-styled facilities during Obama’s tenure. But Cecilia Muñoz, the former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Obama, spoke to NPR in an effort to debunk the viral 2014 images, claiming that the previous administration saw a massive influx in migrant populations the year that the photos were taken due to a surge in violence in Central America.
“What the Obama administration did, which is what the law requires, is to find shelter facilities for those kids, which were put together by the Department of Health and Human Services,” Muñoz said. “So the goal was to get kids out of the Border Patrol into proper care by HHS, and then HHS is supposed to release them to the least restrictive setting. And in more than 80% of the cases, that was their parents who were already in the United States.”
Trump’s decision to separate migrant children from their families, she argued, is different.
“Now, if a parent comes in the United States with their child, even if they’re fleeing for their lives, the policy of the United States is to separate that child from the parent no matter what the age,” she said. “The Obama administration did not do that. No, we did not separate children from their parents. This is a new decision, a policy decision, made by the attorney general which puts us in league with the most brutal regimes in the world’s history.”
Since the policy was announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, immigrants’ rights advocates have coordinated rallies outside of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field offices across the country in the interest of getting the Trump administration to end the practice of separating families at the border. In late May, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced plans to debut bipartisan legislation aimed at challenging the policy, stating that Congress “has a moral obligation to take a stand here.”
“It’s hard to conceive of a policy more horrific than intentionally separating children from their parents as a form of punishment,” Feinstein said in a statement. “This is not what the United States of America should be.”
Indeed, Smaller said the policy “absolutely goes against the values our country stands for in terms of welcoming immigrants — especially those who are fleeing from some kind of political or criminal atmosphere in their own country.”
“I see it as a kind of insensitivity to human emotional issues,” he added. “In terms of the current administration, this comes up in the form of rhetoric and vitriolic comments about people of color, immigrants, people of various religions ... There is a consistent insensitivity that leaves people feeling like they’re being singled out, objectified and marginalized by this administration.”
Although Smaller said the APsaA sent research and literature to the offices of Sessions and Nielsen in the hopes that it would convince the administration to reexamine the policy, Sessions doubled down on the tactic of separating parents and children in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday, saying that the U.S. can’t guarantee that every immigrant parent “will be able to have their hand on that child the entire time.”
“If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them,” Sessions said. “We’ve got to get this message out. You’re not given immunity. You have to, you will be prosecuted if you bring, if you come illegally. And if you bring children, you’ll still be prosecuted.”