This week, Laura Bush declared the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of separating children from parents who arrive at the border and incarcerating them “cruel” and “immoral.” She was the first high-profile Republican to liken the policy to “the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II.” George Takei, who was 5 when he was sent to those camps, actually says the Trump policy is “worse.”
Alongside the arguments that the detentions are inhumane, experts also cite the detrimental health effects on children. The American Public Health Association wrote that the trauma from such separation could lead to alcoholism, substance abuse, depression, obesity and suicide. (While the White House says the policy will end for future migrants, it will still affect the thousands of children currently in custody.)
But even for those who believe immigration lawbreakers deserve punishment, there’s another argument against separating children from their families: national security. The government’s policy puts the United States at risk, in both the short and long term, by breeding a generation of children with psychological problems and a population elsewhere that reviles us. Traumatized children are prime recruits for extremist groups. Their children and children’s children grow up in the shadow of, to use the language of 9,300 mental health experts, “shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds.” As adults, these traumatized children are significantly more likely to have encounters with law enforcement.
An extensive body of literature documents how early childhood trauma creates cycles of violence that can destabilize whole nations. The Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland examined whether Britain’s deterrence strategies to halt terrorism in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1992 were effective. Scholars Gary Lafree, Laura Dugan and Raven Korte found that most “deterrence” interventions, including jailing and family separation, actually triggered increased terrorist attacks. (The jailed youths were older, generally, than the children arriving at the U.S. border today; studies on the impacts of younger children also find antisocial behaviors among displaced and isolated children.) In a major 2015 study, UNICEF found that children in the Middle East who are displaced by conflict fall behind in school, lose opportunities to contribute to economies and become vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremists.
In North America, the survivors of forced attendance in American Indian boarding schools have seen the effects reverberate for years. Scholars in Canada have drawn causal links between boarding school attendance (sometimes for children as young as 3) in the 1900s and elevated levels of depression, drug use and criminal behavior two generations later. Even today, Native Americans are incarcerated at a rate 38 percent higher than the national average, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. Native American women sent to boarding schools as girls were six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts and had a 57 percent higher rate of alcoholism as adults.
We already know that the U.S. citizen-children subjected to parental deportation suffer from a greater burden of anxiety and depression, attention problems, social withdrawal and rule-breaking behaviors. As the administration increases the number of citizen-children by deporting their parents, we must consider how this destabilizing force will worsen as the government displaces and isolates young children fleeing violence who have never developed communities here. A 2016 study of 15,587 adult children of incarcerated parents found that separating children from parents directly increased interactions with the criminal justice system, including drug abuse and gang affiliation. The separation need not result from criminal activity to make kids vulnerable to violence and radicalization, though. As Gordon Brown, the U.N. special envoy for global education, argued, Syrian children separated from their support systems are “more likely to become the youngest laborers in the factory, the youngest brides at the altar, and the youngest soldiers in the trench.”
The threat of radicalization means we don’t need to wait decades to experience the consequences. The individual suffering of older children is immediately consequential to our security because incarceration centers have become recruiting grounds for armed groups. Trump’s favorite boogeyman, the MS-13 gang from which so many Salvadorans flee, was founded in Los Angeles prisons. The United States is keenly aware that young people can be easily radicalized while imprisoned: At a symposium sponsored by the Department of Justice and State Department last year, experts advocated for permitting family visits precisely to prevent radicalization.
We have seen the radicalization of incarcerated youths firsthand. One of us, Steven Leach, spent years working with South African juveniles awaiting trial. These youths did not all enter detention as organized criminals, but without exception, among those who worked with Leach, each left prison a member of the gang. A similar problem emerged in the internment camps of the Anglo-Boer war, in which British soldiers detained civilians to deter guerrilla campaigns by Boer insurgents. Approximately 115,000 people were held in the camps between 1901 and 1902; 22,000 Afrikaner children died. More than a century later, that horror remains at the forefront of the Afrikaner imagination, poisoning interactions between white South Africans of British heritage and Afrikaners.
Trump has also flayed U.S. allies, including Great Britain, Canada and Germany, with a combination of lies and personal attacks. He recently tweeted: “Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” He leverages lies to stoke fear here: “We don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us!”
Naturally, this feeds radical anti-American sentiment and promotes nationalism abroad when the U.S. is most in need of alliances to solve global problems. (The salvos against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were particularly startling.)
There is now strong evidence that punitive deterrence strategies don’t work, no matter how burdensome they are. A leaked government-commissioned survey in 2015 found that punishments between 2000 and 2015 effectively reduced economic migration from Mexico but had negligible impact on the population the administration is targeting with its current policy: asylum seekers fleeing violence. The report points out that there is no consequence worse than death and violence at home for these migrants.
The single best thing we can do for our national security is to immediately end the present detention practice. If these are people we want as enemies, we had better be prepared for a multigenerational war.