The Biden administration is considering reintroducing one of the most infamous anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration – the practice of detaining migrant families, including young children, seeking protection in the US even though they are not charged with any criminal wrong doing. There was a reason why this policy, among the many egregious Trump measures targeting migrants at the Southern border – a border wall, the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy forcing asylum seekers to wait out their access to processing in dangerous Mexican border sites, the ban on entry targeting Muslims – attracted particular outrage across the globe. Detention is what child neuroscientists call an instance of “toxic stress,” an event that can have life-long consequences for a child’s physical and mental health. Detention deprives a child of the sense of autonomy and basic dignity that are essential prerequisites for “health” broadly conceived, that sense of fundamental wellbeing that underpins the possibility of surviving and thriving. Evidence from the detention of migrant children during the Trump administration attests to the devastating health impacts of the policy long after children were eventually released – depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation. That the Biden government, repeatedly proclaiming its investment in promoting the lives of “ordinary working people” and its embrace of diversity and inclusion, would intentionally set out to harm some of the most vulnerable constituencies within its jurisdiction is hard to fathom. Hard to fathom until one reflects that electoral calculus and the desire to appease xenophobic publics ahead of the next election can trump even the most fundamental principles on which a government has been elected. A sad reflection of the state of American democracy today. And a revealing indicator of the lack of political acumen about the drivers of Central American migration, which is driven by a desperation to survive in the face of structural violence at home, rather than a Machiavellian calculus about the degree of ferocity of US border control. Draconian migration policies are a shameful substitute for equitable foreign policy and principled engagement with some of the US’s closest neighbors.
— Jacqueline Bhabha, JD, MSc
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, FXB Center Director of Research