Family separations: surviving danger only to suffer trauma at the US border

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Immigrant families even after being reunited tell stories of long-term trauma caused by the separation policy

Carlos Humberto Aguilar pauses after every few words when he gets to the part of his immigration story when his son Aaron, then 13, was taken away by US border officials and he wasnt there to say goodbye. Carlos says several times that what happened to them was the one thing his son most worried about as they made their way to America being forcibly separated from his father.

He used to tell me, Please dont leave me alone and he would repeat that, Carlos said as he recalled his sons pleas during the almost year-long journey from El Salvador to the US border. It was a difficult and dangerous trip that they survived together, only to be split up at their destination.

I told him that I would always be with him. But when they separated us, my promise was broken, Carlos said.

Aaron spent a month in a center for children while his mother, who was already in the US, struggled to locate him, acquire legal representation and turn in documentation proving she was his mother.

Nine months after entering the US, Aaron still stutters when he talks, and he refuses to speak to his father. The relationship we had is broken, the trust we had is broken, Carlos says.

Their story is a familiar one of leaving a homeland to avoid falling prey to gang violence, but ending up traumatised by their experiences arriving at the border. After facing widespread backlash over a policy of child separation at the border, the US government is now seeking to reunite families. But parents and mental health professionals say the effects of the trauma of separation will persist long after parents and children have found each other again.

Child separation of migrant families increased in April of this year under Donald Trumps zero tolerance policy, however its not entirely new. The presidents policy change increased separations because adults crossing into the US illegally would now be criminally charged rather than simply deported. This policy change meant that adults were held in detention facilities, where children are not allowed, until their date in court.

Carlos and his son presented themselves to border officials to seek asylum, and they arrived five months before zero tolerance was implemented. Carlos believes he was discriminated against, and despite providing Aarons birth certificate and passport, that he was separated under suspicion that he wasnt his real father.

Isabela, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, hugs her 17-year-old daughter Dayana after being reunited with her in Brownsville, Texas. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Carlos and his family had left behind their upholstery shop and their hometown in El Salvador four years ago because he could no longer afford the $500 monthly fee that the MS-13 gang demands from every local business owner in the area. When gang members told his wife she had to smuggle drugs for them and that Aaron needed to join the gang or their family would never be safe, they decided they had to leave the country. They left in January 2017.

When Carlos and Aaron reached the US point of entry in Tijuana, Mexico, in November 2017 he told the Customs and Border Protection officials that they came to apply for asylum. After two days in a crowded holding cell, father and son handcuffed together, Carlos says Aaron grew quiet, he couldnt express himself as well as before and began to stutter.

On the fifth day, now in Ice custody, officials told Carlos to go collect his belongings because he would be moved to a detention center. When he returned, Aaron and the children of three other fathers had all been taken away to another facility.

Because of what we were going through in El Salvador, I always looked for a way to keep us together, Carlos said. But sadly, what didnt happen in El Salvador happened to us here.

Other immigrant families even though they too have now been reunited have similar stories of long-term trauma caused by the separation policy.

Jose Demar Fuentes was one of the other fathers separated on the same day as Carlos in November 2017.

He and his wife and two sons, also fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, were traveling with a group of migrants through Mexico when their 15-month-old, Mateo, fell ill. Jose and his wife Olivia decided to use all the money they had to pay for a bus ticket so that Jose and Mateo could get to the US faster and seek medical attention.

When Olivia found out that her baby had been separated from her husband, she made it to the US as fast as possible and began the process of finding him and providing all of the necessary documentation. After 85 days separated from his parents, Olivia and her son Mateo were reunited in February 2018 at the Los Angeles airport. In the video of this moment, it appears as though Mateo doesnt know her.

Six months after being reunited, Olivia says Mateo cries when strangers approach them and still wakes up crying just like he did on their first night back together. She said: People have said things to me like How can a child his age have trauma? He cant possibly know what happened to him. But Olivia believes he does know, and most concerning to her, she says he has changed a lot. Now hes afraid of everything, she said.

Dr Faye Snyder, psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist, says that the attachment phase roughly age zero to three years old when children build their relationships with and depend upon their parents, is critical to development. It is important to understand that an attachment break at that age is so much more traumatic than to an adult, Snyder said.

A group of immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala seeking asylum stand in line at the bus station in McAllen, Texas. Photograph: Eric Gay/AP

After eight months in detention, Mateos father Jose was released from detention on 10 July.

Its like were starting the process all over again, Olivia said. Mateo wont approach his father and if he cant see me he starts crying again.

She says her whole family is suffering from the separation, not just Mateo. Her older son Andree, who was four when they entered the US, is scared to be left alone anywhere without her. He has a lot of fears, she said. He cant even look at the police because he says they are going to take him away the same way they did with his brother and dad.

Dr Snyder points out that even children who are separated from just one of their parents due to detention also experience separation anxiety.

Mirna Aldana, her husband Magdiel Lopez and their 18-month-old Joshua entered the US seeking asylum in early May. Joshua was never taken away from Mirna throughout her 24 days in detention, but neither of them have seen her husband for nearly three months now because Magdiel is still in detention.

He wakes up in the middle of the night crying and calling out Daddy! Daddy, Mirna said. I dont know what the adjustment period will be like when his dad gets out.

Carlos Aguilar still hasnt seen his son in person, now 14, since the day they were separated. After seven and a half months in detention, Carlos was released in June. Since then he has been living on a friends couch in Detroit while his sons live with their mother in Chicago. About his sons, Carlos said: They dont want to talk to me because they feel I disappointed them. Theyre scared its going to happen to us again. Separation destroys families.

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