February 10, 2021

By Yesenia Martinez

Take a moment and imagine being a child, torn from the arms of your parents or caregiver and forcibly separated from them, for an undetermined amount of time, at an unknown distance. You now have no protection and no security for survival. You are surrounded by strangers and overwhelmed with fear.

It is obvious how a child living this experience would suffer from trauma.

The American Psychological Association found that PTSD symptoms were significantly higher for children of detained and deported parents compared to citizen children whose parents were either legal residents or undocumented without prior contact with immigration enforcement. In addition to the traumatic experiences children face at detention centers or during ICE raids, they live with the fear of the highly probable possibility that their parents will be taken again.

If the family has not been reunited, timely reunification is uncertain. And if these children experienced violence even before crossing the border, such as inhumane, unhygienic conditions in detention centers and discrimination or bullying at school, one can see how their traumatic exposure could grow exponentially.

I quote Tony Caldwell, a licensed clinical social worker who led trauma counseling sessions for the parentless children of the Mississippi immigration raids: "Trauma is a lifetime journey. And the journey started in the past 48 hours for some of these kids, and it'll be with them for the rest of their lives in some way."

Will these children suffer from PTSD or another mental illness? Another investigation found that children who experienced an immigration raid demonstrated sleep and eating disturbances, increased crying and fear, and aggressive or withdrawn behavior. But, even if they do suffer from these mental health issues, will they be diagnosed or treated?

Forced separation and detainment instills fear: fear to seek medical care, social services or public programs. What makes the medical community think that families living with this uncertainty and fear will seek mental health services?


Call to Action for Clinicians

As clinicians, we need to be proactive and intervene to meet the immediate mental health needs of the families and children. Clinicians can:

  • Practice cultural competency and attend gatherings at local churches where families are seeking legal consultation the day after an ICE raid
  • Engage with a church leader, someone the community already trusts; by doing so, the clinician proves he or she can also be trusted
  • Talk to school counselors or teachers, who can reach out to the family of a withdrawn child and recommend our mental health services
  • Visit the community health center and make themselves geographically accessible

Additionally, as health providers, we are uniquely positioned to offer consultation to immigration attorneys and evaluate and serve the children impacted by migration-related stressors and trauma. As mental health advocates, it is our responsibility to participate in community-level advocacy. Otherwise, families may never seek help on their own, and the children will suffer the life-long ramifications of their trauma.

Once the child has lived the experience, we cannot undo the act — but we can prevent the extent to which trauma affects the child’s future by providing mental health services. Let us be present, my fellow clinicians, for we might be the only hope these children have.


Yesenia Martinez is a fourth-year medical student at UCI School of Medicine. She became passionate about mental health when she experienced substance abuse and trauma within her family, which led to her grandfather’s death. She learned in school that substance abuse can be treated.

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