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The US War on Immigrants Is a Public Health Crisis

Conditions in the migrant prisons are setting the stage for a multigenerational health catastrophe.

This March 27, 2019, photo shows migrants crammed inside a makeshift jail in El Paso, Texas. Conditions in the migrant prisons are setting the stage for a multigenerational health catastrophe.

This week, Americans will celebrate the 4th of July with barbecues and fireworks while drinking beers and listening to speeches extolling liberty and freedom. Others, however, will be more active in working to make sure the idea of freedom extends to more than just U.S. citizens. On Tuesday, protests and demonstrations are being held across the country to resist Trump’s increasingly violent nativism, with folks heading to their local Congressperson’s office or picketing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in their neighborhood.

The U.S.’s Independence Day holiday is taking place this year against a backdrop of venomous anti-immigrant actions being carried out by uniformed officers of the American state. Trump, who will be presiding over a particularly grotesque militarized “Salute to America” in Washington, D.C., that day, has declared that he will order his enforcement agents to begin mass deportation sweeps shortly after the holiday.

Since the demagogue-in-chief has promised the same thing previously, only to then announce a postponement, his words should be taken with a pinch of salt. But regardless of their reality, they are deliberately intended to ratchet up the fear levels and stress experienced by millions in the United States.

It is all in keeping with a long history — and recent intensification — of a slew of brutal policies and practices toward immigrants. We — and I say “we,” since all of this is being done by an elected government, ostensibly in the name of “we, the people” — have criminalized and dehumanized and pushed internment on some of the most vulnerable among us, and we have done so with no thought or care for the long-term impacts on the lives of those so heartlessly treated.

We have forcibly separated immigrant parents from their children. We have put children into cage-like “detention centers,” some of which deny them such basic amenities as diapers, toothpaste and soap. We have bottled up asylum seekers in fetid encampments on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump and his henchmen didn’t create these atrocious practices out of thin air; in fact, some of the horrific conditions in migrant jails were described as early as 2015. But those currently in charge of immigration policy have turbo-charged the brutality. It is, now, a terrifying central facet of U.S. immigration policy.

Inside these encampments and migrant jails, pulmonary diseases, fungal infections, skin infections, and a slew of illnesses such as mumps, measles and chicken pox have run amok. Thousands have been quarantined in the face of these outbreaks. Volunteer doctors in Southwestern cities, into which asylum-seeking families have been grudgingly released after days and weeks in detention, report seeing the sorts of health impacts they are more used to seeing in war zones and much poorer countries far from the United States.

The president has vowed to break up the families of those who hold Temporary Protected Status and to deport young Americans with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. Haitian families arriving at the border are no longer being “paroled in” as they initially were under Obama — allowed to live and work in the country while their immigration status was adjudicated by the courts; now the men and the teenage boys are immediately arrested and placed into detention. Only the women and the young children are let in. Separated from their husbands and sons, many of the Haitian women I met in San Diego were suffering from extreme depression and a sense of utter helplessness as they have to navigate bureaucracies that want only to make their lives hell.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is threatening to evict over 100,000 members of mixed-status families — families where some have either citizenship or legal status, while others are undocumented. Tens of thousands of these people, according to HUD’s own analysis, are U.S. citizen children. It’s hardly a stretch to say that any government that deliberately pushes thousands of kids out onto the streets is deliberately precipitating a public health calamity.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security is trying to change the definition of “public charge” to prevent immigrants from accessing such needed assistance as Medicaid and food stamps, thus making it more likely immigrant families and their children will go hungry or get sick.

All of this comes with long-term health implications for immigrant communities in the U.S. Extreme stress — such as the stress experienced by a person in constant terror of being arrested and deported, or in fear that their parents or spouse will be taken away — affects a person’s heart, blood pressure, metabolism, psychological well-being and a slew of other health indicators.

Prolonged incarceration in harsh conditions such as those experienced by ICE detainees can exacerbate or trigger a range of mental health conditions — from panic attacks to paranoia and even psychosis. In the 1990s and early 2000s, I wrote many articles and books exploring these prison conditions, as well as a long report for Human Rights Watch detailing the mental health impact of mass incarceration. Now, we are creating similar situations in the network of internment camps being set up to house immigrants — including those with the legal right to claim asylum. The prison-industrial complex has fully expanded to include an immigration-detention complex.

For younger people, the results of incarceration, and particularly solitary confinement, can be particularly devastating. Psychologists such as Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz have documented long-term, irreversible, neurological impacts that reduce a person’s subsequent ability to function socially, educationally and emotionally. Thus, when we read of children kept in cages, and of staff at the facilities being told that they cannot show any physical affection — including the giving of hugs — to young children in distress, we should immediately see red flags. The more we physically and emotionally isolate people inside these awful facilities, the more we risk damaging their long-term health.

Similarly, studies of those who have been forcibly removed from their parents, as so many immigrant children have been over the past years, can create such cascading stress levels that brain neurons are quite literally killed off by the flood of stress hormones.

But the dangers don’t stop there. Researchers now know that prolonged periods of extreme stress and fear can create epigenetic changes that impact not just the direct victims, but also their descendants. Studies of the children of the victims of the “Hunger Winter” in Holland at the end of WWII, when the Nazis deliberately starved the Dutch population, suggest that not only were the victims themselves more likely to subsequently develop obesity, diabetes and other health problems, but their children were also likely to have shortened life spans. Researchers have hypothesized that the extreme conditions permanently “silenced” certain genes, leading to negative health impacts appearing years and decades after the Hunger Winter.

We are, with all of these actions, setting the conditions for a multigenerational public health catastrophe. In the name of “national security,” Trump’s team of sadists is deliberately harming hundreds of thousands of children, in particular, as they start out on life’s journey. This week and beyond, we must stand in solidarity with those who are separated from their family members or incarcerated in concentration camps and end Trump’s war on immigrants.

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