“They don’t have a concept of borders”: Trauma impacts on unaccompanied children

State & Regional

HARLINGEN, Texas (KVEO) — In early 2021, Governor Gregg Abbott discussed the conditions unaccompanied minors face while in detention centers and shelters.  

As the journey for migrant children starts at border crossing sites across the Rio Grande Valley, children are faced with trauma inside the facilities, but for many kids, the trauma begins long before they reach the United States.

For decades there have been women on the front lines, working to protect children as they transition into the United States.

“I think we need to be more compassionate towards these kids,” Civil Right and Immigration Attorney Rochelle Garza said. “You don’t know what they’ve been through, and you don’t know who’s done it to them … and the kids themselves don’t fully understand.”  

The rugged journey into a new country, and a new life is one most adults can’t imagine, but thousands of kids from Central America and Mexico are making it on foot, alone.  

“It’s an incredibly resilient community, and if you think about it in terms of what they have gone through to get through to get to the border, you understand that it’s probably the strongest and most resilient kids that get here,” said Dr. Selma Yznaga, an associate professor of counseling at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. 

Dr.Yznaga worked with unaccompanied children for decades.  

She told Local 23, behind the children’s protective shell is an incredibly vulnerable child.  

“They’re victims of violence… If they are forced into the gangs they are perpetrators of violence even if they don’t to be.”  

Dr. Yznaga explained, their vulnerability builds up over time, and the trauma follows them. 

“Brain and body are constantly communicating there’s a threat, there’s a threat, there’s a threat,” she said. “You can’t let your guard down, and so you get stuck in that.”  

Children of all ages face threats of violence, forcing them to often flee their home countries. 

They also face the threat of food insecurity, and even a lack of healthcare.  

“There’s also the very real danger that the younger children are too weak to make it,” Dr. Yznaga said. “A lot of these kids are traveling with younger siblings, but their younger siblings die or get left behind because they’re just weak to make the journey.” 

She mentions ‘survivor’s guilt’ follows.  

Rochelle Garza, a civil rights and immigration attorney in Brownsville, has represented immigrant children in court.  

She said the legal process can also be a traumatic experience for children coming into the U.S. 

“I think it’s just really breaking it down and just saying, ‘we have to see a judge’ and a judge is going to decide whether or not you should stay in this country or not,” Garza said. “I mean that’s a really heartbreaking thing to say to a kid because –they don’t have a concept of borders.” 

Garza tells Local 23, one of the toughest aspects of her job is building trust among the kids who’ve been through unimaginable experiences.  

“Sometimes it takes years for them to disclose fully what has occurred to them in their life, or to even really come to terms with what has happened to them,” Garza said.  

It’s just one of the reasons Garza says psychologists and counselors are critical.  

“It’s a game-changer when you can have a psychologist work with the child and really get the real story, but also help them with coping mechanisms,” she said.  

Garza and Yznaga agree, kids need compassion.  

“We need training,” Dr. Yznaga said. “People need to understand this is not a bad kid, this is a kid who’s stuck in survival mode and that’s how they know to stay alive.” 

“It’s cliche, you know people say children are the future but it’s true,” Garza said. “And if we don’t show some compassion to these children … who are they going to be when they grow up?”  

Dr. Yznaga added it’s important people remember “they are children, despite what they look like on the outside (they may look tough) they look like they can make it on their own,[but] they are children.” 

After being processed at the border crossing facilities, they are sent to different shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.  

Then, the process of family reunification begins.  

Garza mentioned unaccompanied children going through the immigration process can be helped by donating clothing, school supplies, or purchasing a bus ticket for the child to meet their family or sponsor.  

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