Family Separations Will Have Lasting Health Consequences on Our Society; Here’s What You Can Do to Help

by Erica Soelling, DNP, ARNP, FNP-BC

This is one of a series of articles written by Commissioners from The Seattle Women’s Commission. The Commission advises the Mayor, City Council, and City of Seattle departments on issues that impact the women of Seattle.

The troubling separations of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border will have long-lasting consequences on our community. Therefore, the Chairs of our Commission’s four subcommittees, including Community Health and Wellness, Economic and Educational Opportunities, Equitable Development, and Violence Prevention and Justice have each penned Op-Eds relating to how family separations will impact these four areas in our community. See previous posts here and here.

The true character of society is revealed in how it treats its children.” This Nelson Mandela quote is remarkably prescient today, as draconian immigration policies separate and detain families at the border and within our city limits. These policies are wreaking havoc on the health of women and children, families, communities, and our nation.

Some were appeased by Trump’s Executive Order on June 20 that ceased the forced separation of infants and children from their parents. But it was a small and highly uncertain victory. There is still much to be done. The abhorrent treatment of people seeking refuge in the United States will have lifelong effects on some of our most vulnerable populations. Indeed, women and children disproportionately suffer from the threats that force emigration, as well as the treatment immigrants receive once they enter the U.S. They are fleeing domestic and gang violence as well as political violence. They are escaping war, political instability, poverty, and economic deprivation. Once here, women and children are particularly vulnerable to becoming trapped in perilous dynamics of intimate partner violence. They face discrimination, incarceration, separation from their families, and constant fear of being returned to the very situations they hoped to escape.

One-quarter of all U.S. children have at least one parent who is an immigrant, and these children and families experience the terror surrounding these policies regardless of their immigration status. U.S. children—including your friends and neighbors—are living in constant fear that their parents, or they themselves, will be separated by deportation. They are living with discrimination and blatant racism all the way from the highest office in the land to schoolyard bullies. Many are afraid to go to work, school, or seek healthcare for fear of ICE raids en route. Families are suffering abuses at the hands of landlords and employers based on immigration status.

One consequence of these experiences, toxic stress, will stay with these families for the rest of their lives. Toxic stress is caused by protracted, repeated, and/or intense stimulation of the body’s stress response during brain development throughout pregnancy, infancy, and childhood. For children, it can be mediated by having a supportive parent or guardian to turn to when things are difficult. Triggers of toxic stress include forced family separations, lengthy detention stays, and prolonged undocumented status in a society hunting immigrants.

We are deeply concerned about how toxic stress physically changes the body. Parts of the brain responsible for activating the fear response grow larger, while areas responsible for memory and higher-level thought can shrink. These can impair brain functions and lead to mental and behavioral health problems and struggles with learning, language, and memory. Children exposed to toxic stress constantly experience strong feelings of fear and anxiety, and often have difficulties with emotional regulation, memory, and school performance.

Toxic stress is also associated with higher rates of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, substance use disorders, and other diseases including certain cancers. Children exposed to toxic stress are more likely to grow up to be involved in gangs, incarcerated, impoverished, and without stable, supportive social networks. They are also more likely to have children who experience toxic stress. In these ways, toxic stress also harms the social character and financial health of our nation.

As Seattleites, we must rise up to re-shape the character of our society and protect the wellbeing of our most vulnerable. We must stop the root causes of toxic stress in their tracks. The Seattle Women’s Commission urges you to join us in creating a healthier, more just and humane society for all those in our community. To do so, we must apply pressure at every level: federal, state, and local.

Fortunately, there’s good news: you can take action.

We urge you to reach out to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle City Councilmembers, as well as to Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, and insist that they strengthen and enforce the sensitive locations policy outlined by the Center for Law and Policy (CLASP) study, which examined the experiences of immigrant children and families under the Trump Administration. This policy restricts immigration agents from conducting actions at places essential to the health and wellbeing of children, such as schools, child care centers, and health care clinics. These protections should be expanded to include areas near these essential places as well.

We demand – and ask you to demand – that Congress pass the Protecting Sensitive Locations Act, to strengthen the current policy, as well as the bipartisan HELP Separated Children Act. Write to Mayor Durkan and City Council to direct funding and awareness to legal services such as those provided by Colectiva Legal del Pueblo, NW Immigrants Rights Project, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the International Refugee Assistance Program. Look to these same organizations, and others, including El Centro de la Raza, Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, Refugee Women’s Alliance, Casa Latina, OneAmerica, Latino Community Fund, and Washington CAN to find other ways to support our immigrant community.

One of our multi-year commitments as a Commission is promoting stable housing for women and families in Seattle. We urge Mayor Durkan and the Seattle City Council to: make immigration status a protected class so that families do not face housing and employment discrimination based on documentation; ensure humane conditions for families held in Seattle’s detention facilities; offer restorative support services for reunited families; develop stronger protocols (and awareness of them) for law enforcement; progress stronger institutional protocols at the City level that can be extended to County, and State levels (including within government and schools); provide safer, more visible channels for those who are out of status or undocumented to access needed help; and follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines and additional recommendations outlined by the Northwest Immigrant and Refugee Health Coalition in their statement on the health of immigrant children.

The impact of thousands of children being separated from their families will have long-lasting impacts on our community’s health and wellbeing. We must take action now.


Erica Soelling is a commissioner on the Seattle Women’s Commission.

Featured image by Cristian Newman.

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