Opinion: Trump Is Traumatizing Children. California Must Protect Them

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The federal administration’s attacks on immigrant families and children have been relentless. In the last three years, we’ve seen racist rhetoric and hateful messaging from the president, new hurdles that keep families from accessing health and social services, and the separation of families at the border and in our own communities.

Our children’s mental health and wellbeing is at stake. An entire generation of children is being traumatized.

As the daughter of immigrants and the president of a children’s advocacy organization that advocates for the healthy development and wellbeing of all children, this period of crisis is both personal and professional.

Mayra E. Alvarez

My organization, The Children’s Partnership, launched the Healthy Mind, Healthy Future initiative with our partners at the California Immigrant Policy Center to better understand and document how the anti-immigrant policies are affecting the health of children in immigrant families across the state.

Health practitioners, teachers and families reported that these policies are hurting children in California. A vast majority of health care providers we surveyed (87 percent) reported that children in immigrant families have experienced increased anxiety and fear since the 2016 election. A majority (70 percent), reported an increase in children’s symptoms of depression, including feelings of sadness, sleeping problems, changes in appetite and loss of interest in activities they enjoyed.

Educators have expressed that, as a result of fears and anxieties related to immigration enforcement, students are not performing as well academically, are not showing up to school and are not accessing resources that they have previously. The Center on Law and Social Policy reports that children as young as 3 years old are expressing to their teachers their fear of being separated from their parents, even if their parents are not at risk of deportation. Early childhood providers said their children are experiencing increased separation anxiety during drop-offs, aggressive behavior, increased hyperactivity, decreased engagement and social withdrawal.  

Too many young children in California—the large majority of whom are citizens—are experiencing significant stress that hinders their ability to focus on learning, makes their daily lives unstable and creates obstacles to getting their basic needs met.

As we outline in our recent report, co-authored with fellow children’s advocacy organization Early Edge, the development of California’s youngest is being disrupted, which puts them at greater risk for poor health outcomes not just now, but over the course of their lives.

With one in two California children living in an immigrant family and an even larger proportion in households where a language other than English is spoken, our work to serve the state’s young children must be responsive to the specific needs of immigrant families.

The time is now to support the large and growing population of immigrant families, so every child in California feels safe, healthy and ready to learn. As California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris said recently, “Regardless of what one thinks about immigration, there’s one price no child should have to pay: a shortened life.”

Having a loving, interactive and safe environment is essential to the brain development of a young child. Our state leaders must invest in community-based approaches that support the availability of such environments for immigrant families, which will end up benefiting all California families.

California needs to invest in network-building between early childhood providers and health and legal services to strengthen family supports. This means aligning new early childhood programs, like home-visiting and developmental screening, to the needs of children in immigrant families, given the levels of trauma we know children are experiencing. It means doubling down on our commitment of #HealthForAll to ensure immigrant families can access the health and nutrition services their children need without jeopardizing their chances at gaining lawful status.

When the wellbeing of children of immigrants is compromised, California’s future is compromised. We know that the federal administration is not interested in supporting children, but fortunately California’s leaders have made children a top priority.

For the sake of our collective future, we cannot stand by while anti-immigrant policies incite hate against our children.

To tackle this health crisis and build a #CaliforniaForAll, we must invest in children and their families. We must give them the ability to heal from the trauma the federal administration is inflicting. With Gov. Gavin Newsom, Surgeon General Burke-Harris and community leaders working together, I know California can lead the way.

Mayra E. Alvarez is president of The Children’s Partnership, a non-profit children’s policy and advocacy organization.

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