An ongoing challenge that some unauthorized parents must face when they come to the United States is losing and trying to regain custody of their children. This was the case with Araceli Ramos Bonilla, who crossed the border with her daughter Alexa in attempt to escape her abusive husband in El Salvador. Upon entering the United States, Alexa was taken into custody and put into foster care. Ramos was sent back to El Salvador and found herself in the middle of a two-year legal battle for custody of her daughter. After over a year, Ramos finally regained custody of her daughter, however, Alexa expressed that she missed her foster family a lot, as she had spent about half of her life with them. It is important to look at the case of Ramos and Alexa, as well as other similar cases, in the light of developmental psychology to understand the impact of being in a situation like this and what can be done to help improve the outcome.

The case of Ramos and Alexa not only shows the difficulty of being separated, but also the difficulties that come with being reunited. Reunification with parents after an extended period of time can cause a feeling of disorientation in the children and the necessity to rebuild family ties. The reunification process is ongoing and can take years. Research in developmental psychology has shown that at the beginning of the reunification, children tend to experience a significant amount of psychological distress, however, that distress seems to fade away over the years (1). Despite the psychological distress being seemingly short-term, it calls into question ethical concerns about whether it is worth it to put young children, like Alexa, through this difficult situation.

One way that children who are going through this situation can be helped is through the school system, namely through positive relationships with their teachers. Teacher-student relationships among immigrant youth have been linked to greater academic engagement and success (2). For immigrant children, familial connections often promote achievement in school. However, teachers can play an important role in helping students continue to succeed even if they are having changing family ties.

Another way that children who are going through can be helped is through neighborhood-based institutional resources. While research shows that family often plays a major role in child development, it also shows that neighborhood resources (such as youth centers) can also help children developmentally (3). Therefore, in an unstable family setting, it would be important for children who are undergoing separation be able to utilize these resources.

While it may seem like reunification may be the end to the challenges children face due to separation from their families, it is really the start of another set of difficulties. Therefore, United States immigration policy should take this into account when deciding the fate of the children whose parents have crossed the border with them. If the children are to be separated, it is important to try to minimize the psychological distress.


  1. Suárez-Orozco, C., Bang, H. J., & Kim, H. Y. (2011). I felt like my heart was staying behind: Psychological implications of family separations & reunifications for immigrant youth. Journal of Adolescent Research, 26, 222–257.
  2. Motti-Stefanidi, F. & Masten, A.S. (2013). School success and school engagement of immigrant children and adolescents: A risk and resilience developmental perspective. European Psychologist, 18, 126-135.
  3. Leventhal, T., & Shuey, E. A. (2014). Neighborhood context and immigrant young children’s development. Developmental Psychology, 50, 1771–1787.