American Psychological Association (APA)

APA Decries Proposal Allowing Indefinite Detention of Immigrant Children

Cites 'serious harm' to psychological well-being, physical health

Newswise — WASHINGTON – The American Psychological Association voiced opposition to a proposed rule that would allow the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to detain immigrant children with their families indefinitely.

“The mental health problems that children and families experience as a result of family detention are well documented.” APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, said in a letter to Debbie Seguin, assistant director in the policy office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “As you know, more than half of the children in U.S. family detention centers are under the age of 6, and the large majority [have] experienced trauma prior to arriving at the immigration facility. We cannot underscore enough the importance of considering the mental health of the detainees and the strong possibility that the longer individuals are held in detention, the more likely their mental health will suffer -- this is especially the case for children.”

Evans was responding to a proposed rule published in the Federal Register on Sept. 7 seeking to terminate the Flores Settlement Agreement, a 1997 federal court ruling that limits the length of time immigrant children can be detained by the U.S. government to 20 days.

“[W]e are deeply concerned that the proposed rule would effectively terminate the Flores Settlement Agreement and allow immigrant children to be detained indefinitely.” Evans wrote. “It would also create an untenable alternative to the existing state licensure requirement for detention facilities. These proposed actions pose serious harm to the psychological well-being of immigrant children, their U.S.-born siblings, and other family members.”  

Evans cited numerous clinical studies demonstrating that merely having parents present does not negate the damaging impact of detention on the physical and mental health of immigrant children. In one study Evans cited, children were reported to have a tenfold increase in developing psychiatric disorders when they were detained. Other studies of detained children have found that most of them reported symptoms of depression, sleep problems, loss of appetite, and somatic complaints, such as headaches and abdominal pains.

Moreover, many asylum-seeking mothers and children who flee to the U.S. have survived domestic violence, child abuse, rape, sexual slavery or human trafficking, Evans noted. “Meaningful access to trauma-informed mental health care is critical to ensure that both adult and child survivors of trauma heal and ultimately achieve self-sufficiency. The longer survivors go without such desperately needed services, the more challenging the healing process may be,” he wrote.

APA also objected to a requirement in the proposed rule that children’s status as unaccompanied minors be continually redetermined. “We are concerned that this would cause vulnerable young children who arrived in the U.S. alone to be deprived of full due process protections in their immigration proceedings. More specifically, the proposed rule does not make clear what legal protections a child will have in their immigration proceedings, nor does it specify details about the guardians throughout the legal process.”

Evans also stressed the importance of staffing family detention centers with licensed mental health providers who at a minimum speak Spanish and have training in cultural diversity, as well as a background in providing trauma-informed care for children and families.

“These basic competencies on the part of providers will help to ensure that the children receive appropriate psychotherapeutic services that they desperately need,” he wrote.


The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes nearly 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives. www.apa.orgIf you do not want to receive APA news releases, please let us know at or 202-336-5700.

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