A Migrant Boy Rejoins His Mother, But He’s Not the Same

Parents reunited with young children are reporting mental health issues. One 5-year-old boy has started a new life with his mother in Philadelphia, but signs of trauma remain.

PHILADELPHIA — Before they were separated at the southwest border, Ana Carolina Fernandes’s 5-year-old son loved playing with the yellow, impish Minion characters from the “Despicable Me” movies. Now his favorite game is patting down and shackling “migrants” with plastic cuffs.

After being separated from his mother for 50 days, Thiago isn’t the same boy who was taken away from her by Border Patrol agents when they arrived in the United States from Brazil, Ms. Fernandes said last week.

When they first got home after being reunited, the boy — whom she hadn’t nursed in years — pleaded to be breast-fed. When visitors showed up at the family’s new home in Philadelphia, he crouched behind the sofa.

“He’s been like that since I got him back,” Ms. Fernandes said. “He doesn’t want to talk to anyone.”

Thiago is among nearly 3,000 children who were forcibly removed from a parent at the border this spring as part of the Trump administration’s new “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. After a national backlash, President Trump ended family separations on June 20, and more than 1,800 separated children have been reunited with their parents over the past few weeks.

But many of the children released to their parents are exhibiting signs of anxiety, introversion, regression and other mental health issues, according to reports from lawyers, immigrant advocates and volunteers working with reunited families.

“Our volunteers are seeing the significant and real toll that these traumatic separations have had on these children’s and these families’ lives, which persist even after reunification,” said Joanna Franchini, who is coordinating a national network of volunteers working with migrant children and their parents called Together & Free.

A 3-year-old boy who was separated from his mother has been pretending to handcuff and vaccinate people around him, behavior he almost certainly witnessed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, according to those working with him. A pair of young siblings burst into tears when they spotted police officers on the street.

By Miriam Jordan for THE NEW YORK TIMES
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