Research Publication

Applying Child Development Research to Immigration Policy

This is a joint publication from Child Trends and the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families.

Research evidence shows that children thrive within safe, nurturing, stable, and predictable environments.1-3 For decades, this knowledge has underpinned several federal policies and programs that support family cohesion, stability, and children’s access to enriching environments. These include long-standing initiatives such as the Healthy Marriage & Responsible Fatherhood and Head Start/Early Head Start programs.

This foundational child development research can also guide ongoing national conversations about changes to immigration policy and the impact on families. In this brief, we outline how research on child development, neuroscience, and trauma can inform federal policy regarding the treatment of children and their families arriving at our nation’s border.

Abundant evidence shows that forceful separation from parents is harmful for children in the short term and over time. Children separated from a primary caregiver without preparation or explanation experience traumatic stress that can be toxic to the brain. Studies have demonstrated that experiences of ongoing stress alter an individual’s ability to respond to stress, ultimately changing the brain’s structure and function.2,4 Consequently, there is evidence that children exposed to severe stressors are more likely to suffer serious functional and health impairments over their lives, including posttraumatic stress, insecure attachment, behavioral problems, depression, anxiety, lower IQ, immune system deficits, and chronic health problems.5

There is also evidence that young children separated from their parents due to detention are more likely to experience eating and sleeping difficulties, as well as excessive clinginess and irritability, whereas older children often exhibit withdrawn or aggressive behavior.6 Very young children lack the ability to provide for their own emotional and behavioral needs; therefore, they must rely on the attachment to their caregiver to cope with any stress they encounter.7 Strangers cannot replace the reassurance that primary caregivers provide for their children.8

For families entering a new country, the trauma of separation may be further compounded by their children’s prior exposure to adversity.9 Families seeking asylum in the United States have often endured dangerous conditions in their country of origin, including extreme poverty, gang violence, and persecution; these factors are often the very reasons why they have sought asylum.10,11 During the migration process, additional traumas may occur, such as encounters with abusive individuals, instability, and even sex trafficking.10,11 Children exposed to adversity can recover from trauma,12 but studies show that the presence of supporting, loving, and stable caring adults is critical to their recovery.2,13,14

Prolonged detention is hazardous to both children and families. Children rely upon their parents to cope with the stressors associated with the immigration process and the circumstances in their home countries from which their families fled. Yet detention exposes parents and children to stress associated with the uncertainty of the detention process, additional fear and instability, and potential experiences of abuse, neglect, and violence.15 For families that have experienced previous trauma, detention places them at risk of re-traumatization, which can severely hinder the healing process and cause further harm.16

Furthermore, parents’ own experiences of distress and traumatization can disrupt their immediate and long-term well-being and may impede their ability to buffer their children’s suffering.17-19 There is evidence that immigrants who are arrested or detained for a prolonged time are at increased risk of experiencing physical and mental health problems such as posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, health-related disability, and suicidality.6,20,21 In turn, children whose parents experience these difficulties show behavioral, psychological, and health problems that can be observed even after a long period of time.22,23

Young children held in detention may not understand what is happening in their surroundings, but they can nevertheless internalize their parents’ stress and be adversely affected by it.24 Older children, who may have a greater understanding of the situation, experience these stressors directly. In general, studies show that children in detention experience numerous developmental, emotional, and health problems that include suicidal behavior, sleep disturbances, regressions to age-inappropriate behavior, decreased eating, severe depression, feelings of hopelessness, and aggression.26,27

With prolonged detention, families’ exposure to stressors accumulates, as does the risk for negative outcomes. There is a well-established dose-response relationship between adversity exposure and poor outcomes: The greater the exposure to adverse experiences, the greater the risk for negative outcomes23 and the longer the road to recovery.14

There are alternatives to detention that enable federal officials to maintain custody during the immigration process without inflicting harm to families. Family-friendly and cost-effective alternatives to detention include GPS and/or telephone monitoring, home visits, check-ins, and community monitoring. These alternatives can promote family unity and reduce trauma; they also satisfy the government’s need to monitor and track immigrant families that do not yet have legal status and ensure that they attend court hearings and follow the law.

  • Various approaches have been found to be effective in ensuring that immigrants appear at their court hearings. In an alternative program tested by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2004—an approach that included case management, home visits, reporting to offices, and tracking technology (GPS or telephonic reporting system)—nearly all (99 percent) participating immigrants appeared at their scheduled court hearings.28
  • ICE estimates that it spends $133.99 per adult bed each day;29 other sources, including the General Accountability Office, argue that this is an underestimate, and that the real cost is around $200 per detainee per day.30,31 Detaining families together is even more costly, at $319.37 per day, according to ICE.29 Alternatives to family detention—such as home and office visits, alert responses, court tracking, and/or technology—are significantly cheaper and still effective, with daily costs as low as $5 to $6 per person.31

In recognition of the short- and long-term costs of detention to children, their families, and to society at large—as well as the cost-effectiveness of non-detention options—alternatives to detention have become increasingly common in different judicial contexts (e.g., juvenile justice, pre-trials in the criminal justice context), both in the United States and across the world.32,33

Immigration remains a challenging and polarizing public policy issue. Fortunately, an abundance of existing research and data can inform policymakers about the potential effects of various policies on families and children.


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2 Center on the Developing Child. (2007). The Impact of Early Adversity on Child Development (InBrief). Cambridge, MA: Center on the Developing Child. from

3 Cohen, S. D. (2017). Three principles to improve outcomes for children and families. Science to policy and practice. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. from

4 Stark, E. A., Parsons, C., Van Hartevelt, T., Charquero-Ballester, M., McManners, H., Ehlers, A., et al. (2015). Post-traumatic stress influences the brain even in the absence of symptoms: A systematic, quantitative meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 56, 207-221.

5 Bouza, J., Camacho-Thomson, D., Carlo, G., Franco, X., Garcia Coll, C., Halgunseth, L., et al. (2018). The science is clear: Separating families has long-term damaging psychological and health consequences for children, families and communities. Washington, DC: Society for Research in Child Development. from

6 Chaudry, A., Capps, R., Pedroza, J., Castaneda, R., Santos, R., & Scott, M. (2010). Facing our future: Children in the aftermath of immigration enforcement. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. from

7 Bowlby, J. (2008). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.

8 Zeanah, C. H., Shauffer, C., & Dozier, M. (2011). Foster care for young children: Why it must be developmentally informed. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 50(12), 1199-1201.

9 Thibeault, M. A., Mendez, J. L., Nelson‐Gray, R. O., & Stein, G. L. (2017). Impact of trauma exposure and acculturative stress on internalizing symptoms for recently arrived migrant‐origin youth: results from a community‐based partnership. Journal of Community Psychology, 45(8), 984-998.

10 Hallock, J., Ruiz Soto, A., & Fix, M. (2018). In search of safety, growing numbers of women flee Central America Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from

11 Menjívar, C., & Gómez Cervantes, A. (2018). El Salvador: Civil war, natural disasters, and gang violence drive migration Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. from

12 Masten, A. S. (2009). Ordinary magic: Lessons from research on resilience in human development. Education Canada, 49(3), 28-32.

13 Blair, C., & Raver, C. C. (2016). Poverty, stress, and brain development: New directions for prevention and intervention. Academic pediatrics, 16(3), S30-S36.

14 Wu, G., Feder, A., Cohen, H., Kim, J. J., Calderon, S., Charney, D. S., et al. (2013). Understanding resilience. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 7(10).

15 Office of Inspector General. (2017). Concerns about ICE detainee treatment and care at detention facilities. Washington, DC: Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. from

16 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2014). Chapter 1, Trauma-Informed Care: A Sociocultural Perspective: Center for Abuse Treatment. from

17 Schwerdtfeger, K. L., Larzelere, R. E., Werner, D., Peters, C., & Oliver, M. (2013). Intergenerational transmission of trauma: The mediating role of parenting styles on toddlers’ DSM-related symptoms. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 22(2), 211-229.

18 Lovejoy, M. C., Graczyk, P. A., O’Hare, E., & Neuman, G. (2000). Maternal depression and parenting behavior: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 20(5), 561-592.

19 Nicol-Harper, R., Harvey, A. G., & Stein, A. (2007). Interactions between mothers and infants: Impact of maternal anxiety. Infant Behavior and Development, 30(1), 161-167.

20 Steel, Z., Silove, D., Brooks, R., Momartin, S., Alzuhairi, B., & Susljik, I. (2006). Impact of immigration detention and temporary protection on the mental health of refugees. The british journal of psychiatry, 188(1), 58-64.

21 Sobhanian, F., Boyle, G. J., Bahr, M., & Fallo, T. (2006). Psychological status of former refugee detainees from the Woomera Detention Centre now living in the Australian community. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 13(2), 151-159.

22 Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American journal of preventive medicine, 14(4), 245-258.

23 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Adverse Childhood Experiences Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

24 Glasheen, C., Richardson, G. A., & Fabio, A. (2010). A systematic review of the effects of postnatal maternal anxiety on children. Archives of women’s mental health, 13(1), 61-74.

25 Aizer, A., & Doyle Jr, J. J. (2015). Juvenile incarceration, human capital, and future crime: Evidence from randomly assigned judges. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(2), 759-803.

26 Linton, J. M., Griffin, M., & Shapiro, A. J. (2017). Detention of immigrant children. Pediatrics, 139(4). from

27 Fazel, M., Karunakara, U., & Newnham, E. A. (2014). Detention, denial, and death: migration hazards for refugee children. The Lancet Global Health, 2(6), e313-e314.

28 United States Government Accountability Office. (2014). Alternatives to detention: Improved data collection and analyses needed to better assess program effectiveness Washington, DC: United States Government Accountability Office from 

29 Department of Homeland Security, & U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (2018). U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview, Fiscal Year 2018, Congressional Justification Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. from

30 United States Government Accountability Office. (2018). Immigration Detention: Opportunities exist to improve cost estimates Washington, DC: United States Goverment Accountability Office. from

31 Benenson, L. (2018). The math of immigration detention, 2018 update: Costs continue to multiply. Washington, DC: National Immigration Forum from

32 National Conference of State Legislatures. (2017). Alternatives to incarceration and juvenile detention reform Washington, DC: National Conference of State Legislatures from

33 International Detention Coalition. (2018). Interactive Map – Alternatives to Detention International Detention Coalition. from

About the Center

The National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families (Center) is a hub of research to help programs and policy better serve low-income Hispanics across three priority areas: poverty reduction and economic self-sufficiency, healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood, and early care and education. The Center is led by Child Trends, in partnership with NORC at the University of Chicago; Institute for Human Development and Social Change, New York University; University of North Carolina at Greensboro; and University of Maryland, College Park. The Center is supported by grant #90PH0028 from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation within the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families is solely responsible for the contents of this publication, which do not necessarily represent the official views of the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, the Administration for Children and Families, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Copyright 2018 by the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families.

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