WSJ: After Immigrant Families Are Reunited, Scars of Separation Remain

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In the days after Ever Reyes Mejía was reunited with his 3-year-old son last Tuesday, the young father tried to make their lives seem normal again.

The two kicked around a soccer ball and played with toy cars while staying at a volunteer’s home in Detroit. Mr. Reyes Mejía wrapped his son in tight embraces, promising he would never be alone again.

Father and son were separated three months ago at a Texas migrant-detention center; the boy was sent to an agency in Michigan while Mr. Reyes Mejía was sent to another Texas facility.

Now, Mr. Reyes Mejía said, his son isn’t the same. He doesn’t speak much. He wants to be constantly close to his father and worries every time Mr. Reyes Mejía steps away.

“His personality has changed,” Mr. Reyes Mejía said. “Inside, he carries like a sadness.”

The Trump administration began separating families as part of its crackdown on illegal immigration. President Donald Trump ordered a halt to the practice after widespread outrage and a court ordered the administration to reunite more than 2,000 children with their families by the end of the month.

Families’ joy of reunification has come in some cases with the realization that the psychological effects of separation will take In testimony Thursday before the New York City Council, Jennifer Havens, director and chief of service for child and adolescent psychiatry at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital Center, said the separated children have experienced trauma, whether at home or in crossing the border and being separated from a parent.

In New York City, the roughly 300 separated children in the care of various social-services organizations have regular access to mental-health staff and city services that include bilingual child psychiatrists and a pediatric psychiatric emergency room.

Most of the children are resilient, Dr. Havens said, but there is a subset who have a significant disorder associated with the trauma of separation. Some show signs of major depression, which can lead to suicidal ideation or attempts.

One 6-year-old who had been separated from his family was so deeply traumatized that he might have appeared psychotic to a less-experienced mental health professional, Dr. Havens said. “But really what he was having was a flashback,” she said.

Some very young children appear confused or don’t recognize a parent upon reunifying, Dr. Havens said. Some of them had to attach to another caregiver.

“As I say, attachment is like air. You have to have it,” Dr. Havens said. “For parents to have to go through sort of reacclimating themselves to their children is just horrific.”

The Trump administration said it has reunited all eligible children under age 5 with their families—58 in all—out of more than 2,000 children separated from their families. Officials said 46 other young children weren’t immediately reunited because they were deemed ineligible—in some cases because the adults seeking to rejoin them posed safety concerns, including charges or convictions for child cruelty and domestic violence, according to U.S. officials.

After the government missed a court-imposed deadline on reunification of the younger children, the American Civil Liberties Union in court filings has called on it to establish a fund to pay for mental-health counseling for children “suffering from severe trauma as a result of their forcible separation from their parents.”

Hasan Shafiqullah, attorney-in-charge of the Immigration Law Unit for the Legal Aid Society of New York, said he has seen parent-child reunifications over the past few weeks that weren’t exuberant, running-into-arms moments for children who often appeared shellshocked and frightened.

“There’s a range of responses from parents, too, who are coming with their own trauma from the handling at the hands of the government, and a recognition that this is really the beginning of the next step in a long process,” Mr. Shafiqullah said.

For Silvia, a 25-year-old mother from Guatemala, reunification with her 3-year-old daughter Eyni went relatively smoothly. Silvia, who declined to give her last name, has been staying with her sister in Chatsworth, Ga., after being released from detention. On Wednesday night, two social workers flew Eyni down from New York City, where she had been in foster care since their June separation at the border in El Paso, Texas.

When the social workers handed over Eyni, the girl cried at first, but calmed down when she was in her mother’s arms. Inside the house, Silvia cuddled with her daughter on a couch, and soon she was giggling.

“We’re going to stay with your aunt,” Silvia told her daughter. “We’re going to be very happy.”

“That’s good, Mami,” the girl responded.

Silvia had worried about her daughter’s mental and physical health while separated, but she said she found the girl’s behavior normal. For now, she said, her fears have been put to rest.

Mr. Reyes Mejía, who awaits the next steps in his asylum case, said he worries about his son’s condition after enduring a long and unsettling ordeal. Soon after Mr. Reyes Mejía and his son turned themselves in to authorities at the border crossing in McAllen, Texas in April—claiming asylum because they were fleeing gang violence in Honduras—they were held in a detention facility.

Mr. Reyes Mejía said early one morning, while his son was sleeping, officials told him he needed to complete some paperwork. Only then was he told the two would be separated. He was transported to another detention facility before he could say goodbye to his son.

Throughout his detention, Mr. Reyes Mejía said he was unable to speak to his son.

On Saturday, Mr. Reyes Mejía and his son rejoined his wife and their 5-month-old daughter in Houston, after flying down from Detroit. Mother and daughter had crossed the border in May and were detained and released, but not separated.

With the family’s future in the U.S. still uncertain, they now are staying with a relative in Houston as their asylum claims are processed. Mr. Reyes Mejía said he endeavors to make his son feel safe and promises he’ll never have to go through such an awful journey again.

“He was alone and damaged,” he said. “I ask him to forgive me.” time to repair.