With the latest migrant caravan making its way through Central America, the future of policies regarding unauthorized immigrants have been at the forefront of national headlines. It is estimated that around 7,000 people have managed to cross the border from Guatemala into Mexico illegally. While some may choose to stay in Mexico and seek a form of asylum, many migrants plan to continue their journey all the way to the United States. Several ideas proposed by the Trump administration to respond to immigrants who cross the border into the United States illegally have come to light. One of the most profound plans that has been brought up regards the option of “voluntary family separations”. In other words, parents who are detained at the border with their children will be given the choice to stay detained as a family or to give their children to the foster system while they remain detained.

When potential policies arise that could have such a massive influence on thousands of families, it is important that we understand what effects the policy could have through the lens of developmental psychology. As many immigrant parents are coming to the United States in search of a better opportunity, they may opt to put their children in the foster care system. However, it is important that we note what effects this could have on their children.

Immigrants in the current caravan and others who cross the border into the United States are classified as voluntary immigrants (1). That is, they are coming to the United States in search of a better life which often corresponds with economic and job opportunities. Because they are voluntary immigrants it is important to take into account that they have chosen to come to the United States because they see the benefits. Therefore, if they are presented with the choice of staying detained as a family or sending their children to foster care it is likely to be a very challenging decision.

The immigrant paradox is a phenomenon that immigrants have positive health and developmental outcomes despite the fact that many find themselves in difficult situations. It is thought that one of the factors that contribute to the success of immigrant children is family(2). Therefore, if children are separated from their parents, they may lose the positive effect of the immigrant paradox due to the instability of the foster system. This is important because as a society, we want these children to grow up in the most positive way possible. The effects of the immigrant paradox can greatly improve society.

However, there are also negative developmental implications if families choose to stay together in these detentions centers. For example, families are isolated from US society making it much more difficult for their children to learn English. Research has shown that a mix of informal and academic settings are important when it comes to learning a new language (3). Therefore, in these detention centers children will lack this opportunity. While these families will likely not be able to stay in the US, the fact that they have crossed the border shows motivation to live here. It is possible that they may find a way for their children to come back to the United States or the children may come back when they are adults, making learning English very important.

Overall, if this idea turns into a law, immigrant parents who are detained with their children will have to face a very difficult decision. It is important that we consider what effects this proposal may have on the children developmentally for both the individual well-being of the child and the future of the United States.

  1. Schwartz, S. J., Unger, J. B., Zamboanga, B. L., & Szapocznik, J. (2010). Rethinking the concept of acculturation: Implications for theory and research. American Psychologist, 65, 237-251.
  2. Marks, A. K., Ejesi, K., & García Coll, C. (2014). Understanding the U.S. immigrant paradox in childhood and adolescence. Child Development Perspectives, 8(2), 59–64
  3. Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M. M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.