COVID-19 and Separation of Immigrant Families

Immigrant families currently face a disturbing variation of the horrific separation of parents and children imposed officially from April through June of 2018 but continuing through the fall of 2019 under the government’s “zero tolerance” policy. Now a federal judge has ruled that all migrant children must be released from detention centers because of coronavirus. But immigration officials are not expected to allow parents to leave with them. Anyone with a hand in such heartless policy should be required to view the classic still-face experiment. More powerfully than any words, it shows how a parent provides an infant’s ability to literally hold themselves together.

In a news article released at the time of the original separations, the face of a 2-year-old Honduran girl, dwarfed by the adults who only appear as legs in the photo, communicates undeniable anguish. Used to represent the horror of children separated from their parents at the US Mexican border, the photo became a lightning rod for controversy when it turned out that this particular child was not actually separated from her mother. In an interview for CBS News the border patrol officer involved in the incident explained that they asked the mother to put her daughter down so she could be searched. He explained, “It took less than two minutes. As soon as the search was finished, she immediately picked the girl up, and the girl immediately stopped crying.”  

The fact that the girl recovered immediately shows that she has had accumulated a reservoir of experience with her mother coming back. Rather than falling apart, she was immediately comforted. The very presence of her mother appears to have given her the skills to manage her distress. In an instant she is OK.

But when separations are beyond a young child’s ability to manage, the capacity to recover in the face of disruption is compromised. Time is of the essence.   With too much time, “stress” is transformed into “trauma.”

Pediatrician turned psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott captures the role of time in child development in a way that seems particularly poignant in light of current events. In his book Playing and Reality he describes how a young child comes to have a sense of himself in relation to the world around him:

“It is perhaps worth while trying to formulate this in a way that gives the time factor due weight. The feeling of the mother’s existence lasts x minutes. If the mother is away more than x minutes, then the imago fades, and along with this the baby’s capacity to use the symbol of the union ceases. The baby is distressed, but this distress is soon mended because the mother returns in x+y minutes. In x+y minutes the baby has not become altered. But in x+y+z minutes the baby has become traumatized. Trauma implies that the baby has experienced a break in life’s continuity… [his behavior] now becomes organized to defend against a repetition of ‘unthinkable anxiety.’”

When the Honduran girl’s mother picked her up her rapid recovery reflects an experience Winnicott describes with the lovely phrase “going on being.” The countless experiences of the mother coming back, in typical day-to-day interactions, literally builds a child sense of self. The “unthinkable anxiety” he references is the profound unraveling that accompanies a loss of bearings, a loss of sense of self.

While unfortunate that the photograph was misrepresented, in fact it proves a point about the actual separations known to have occurred in large numbers. Young children rely completely on their parents to hold them together. Self-regulation, the ability to manage on one’s own, is a developmental process that occurs over countless moment to moment interactions in co-regulation with primary caregivers. Separation beyond a young child’s ability to manage represents, from a developmental perspective, a fundamental threat to existence. To purposefully impose such separations again represents an act of unimaginable cruelty.

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