The science is clear. The forcible separation of children from their parents wreaks havoc on the brain. The physiological response starts with an increased heart rate. Then stress hormones, cortisol, and adrenaline are released. Dendrites, those tree branch-like parts of brain cells that send and receive messages, start dying. The physical structure of the brain changes, resulting in dysregulated stress responses, amygdala hyperactivity, and altered development of the prefrontal cortex.

Robert Trousdale
Robert Trousdale
As summed up recently in the Washington Post by Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School, "The effect is catastrophic. ... There's so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this."

Other scientists have elaborated further.

"This is not a scientific issue; it's a fundamental, moral disaster," Jack Shonkoff, the director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, said in a recently published Quartz expose on the family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border. "Here we have taken away what science has said is the most potent protector of children in the face of any adversity: the stability of the parent-child relationship."

The southern border separations, since the administration started enforcing President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy in May, were made even more abhorrent when considering that many of the refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras were fleeing gang violence, mass killings, and poverty caused by decades of U.S. interventionist policy that prioritized a neoliberal economic order, military strongmen, and U.S. corporate interests over the basic human rights and needs of everyday people.

Yet, conceptualizing the moral disaster of state-sponsored family separation as something that occurs solely within the realm of immigration, an implicit assumption given the intense public outcry and media coverage, is deeply flawed.

Family separations are currently occurring in a myriad of different contexts in our communities. These separations also are state-sponsored and, like all forms of family separation, are catastrophic moral disasters.

The U.S. currently locks up more than 2.2 million people. People of color represent greater than 60 percent of this population. In our black communities, the consequences of mass incarceration are particularly devastating: One in eight black men in his 20s currently is behind bars. This results in hundreds of thousands of family separations. This is a crisis. A moral disaster.

In our own Duluth, a quarter of people live in poverty. The minimum wage is $9.65 per hour. You can't support yourself, and you certainly can't raise a family, on such poverty wages. Forcing parents to work 60-plus hours a week just to survive separates families. This is a crisis. A moral disaster.

According to reports from the Council on Foreign Relations, President Barack Obama authorized 542 drone strikes over the course of his presidency. These strikes killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians. In December 2017 President Trump signed the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which put civilian lives abroad at greater risk by relaxing the "imminent threat requirement," which allows the U.S. to select targets outside of armed conflict. This is another form of family separation - and the worst kind: permanent loss. Another crisis. Another moral disaster.

These are just some examples of other forms of state-sponsored family separation that have become normalized in our collective public conscience. The normalization of such systemic and acute forms of violence is frightening.

Yes, we need to sound the alarm for the children at the border, especially as Trump proposes to solve the family-separation problem by keeping families together through indefinite incarceration.

However, if we are to honestly confront the immorality associated with ripping families apart, we must recognize its various forms.


Robert Trousdale is an assistant librarian in the Kathryn A. Martin Library at the University of Minnesota Duluth and previously worked as an immigration and criminal defense attorney and public-school math teacher.