The impact of the Trump administration’s practice of separating families crossing the southern border may be carried far into the future by the children who were abruptly taken from their parents.
Pediatricians, psychologists, and child development researchers have been accumulating evidence that stress and trauma can be major contributors to stunted child development, along with poor nutrition and sanitation. The harm can be particularly acute for mothers and children in the first 1,000 days period during pregnancy to the second birthday of the child; it is the time when the foundation for physical growth is established and when the brain is developing most rapidly and expansively. Interruptions in nutrition, disease from bad water and sanitation, and toxic stress can set back cognitive and physical development for a lifetime.
I saw the impact of migration stress while reporting The First 1,000 Days, which chronicles the lives of moms and their children and families through their first 1,000 days in India, Uganda, Guatemala, and Chicago.
In the western highlands of Guatemala, where child malnutrition rates soared past 50%, the moms were members of a nutrition rehabilitation program led by Primeros Pasos, a clinic founded and run by US and Guatemalan medical students. The moms eagerly gathered to learn about the importance of vitamins and minerals, which foods growing in their fields and sold at their markets were most abundant in those nutrients, and how best to cook them and incorporate them into their diets. They also learned how poor sanitation and hygiene could undermine all these nutrition efforts.
Dianet, one of the moms, seemed to be particularly attentive: she took notes, asked questions, and ambitiously followed the cooking recipes. She kept a clean home. Still, her daughter wasn’t thriving. At her first birthday, the daughter was falling behind in physical growth.
The Primeros Pasos nutritionists were puzzled. Dianet said money was tight in the family, and their corn crop was smaller than expected. Still, the nutritionists thought, there must be something more.
Dianet confided that she was worried about her husband’s attempts to migrate to the United States, where he believed he could find a job and better provide for his family. Three times he had tried, traveling overland through Guatemala and then all the way up through Mexico to the US border. Three times he made it across, only to be rounded up by US authorities and sent back.
Now, Dianet’s husband was pressing her to come with him on another attempt, and to bring their daughter as well. Dianet was consumed with fear. Each attempt to get to the United States had cost them a minor fortune – a couple of thousand dollars at least for the guides. Lenders offered money at high rates, and their debt was growing. The trip was arduous and extremely dangerous. It required walking, riding on the tops of trains, being crammed into the backs of trucks, and crossing rivers and harsh terrain. They would follow the same trails used by drug smugglers, and bandits lay in wait to prey on the migrants. And in the US, there could be detention and arrest. Each time her husband left, Dianet worried that she would never see him again.
This was no journey for a child, she told her husband, particularly one as young as their daughter, who was just learning to walk. Dianet doubted that she herself could make it; she felt she still hadn’t regained all her strength after giving birth.
She didn’t know what to do if her husband insisted on making another run. She frantically asked him: What if they arrest you, what would we do? What if we are both detained in the U.S. and the authorities take our daughter? The uncertainty, the risk, the cost, and the possibility of disaster which could include a family separation – it was all an incredible burden that Dianet was carrying.
As the nutritionists listened, they feared that the daughter was getting lost in mom’s worry. For them it was clear: stress in the home could be as debilitating for a child’s development as a lack of nutrition or lousy water, sanitation and hygiene.
At the end of their 1,000 days, Dianet and her daughter were still in Guatemala. The worry had taken a toll on both. But for thousands of other moms and dads in central America who were on the move north with their children, the stress would only multiply.